|Having delayed the narrative to learn of the books that helped to make
him the man he became, it is necessary to delay further to see how he
practised writing composition, both prose and poetry, in his early
life, thus laying the foundation for the excellence of his writings in
Benjamin was not more than seven years old when he began to write
poetry. His "Uncle Benjamin's" frequent poetic addresses to him
inspired him to try his hand at the art, and he wrote something and
forwarded to his uncle in England. Whatever it was, it has not been
preserved. But we know that he wrote a piece, doggerel of course, and
sent to him, from the fact that his uncle returned the following reply:
"'T is time for me to throw aside my pen,
When hanging sleeves read, write, and rhyme like men.
This forward spring foretells a plenteous crop;
For, if the bud bear grain, what will the top?
If plenty in the verdant blade appear,
What may we not soon hope for in the ear!
When flowers are beautiful before they're blown,
What rarities will afterwards be shown!
"If trees good fruit uninoculated bear,
You may be sure 't will afterwards be rare.
If fruits are sweet before they've time to yellow,
How luscious will they be when they are mellow!
If first-year's shoots such noble clusters send,
What laden boughs, Engedi-like, may we expect in end!"
There was no time, from the above date, when Benjamin did not indulge,
to some extent, his inclination to write. It was done for his own
amusement and profit, so that he was not in the habit of showing or
speaking of his productions. None of them were preserved.
But his talent for composition developed rapidly from the time he was
fairly settled in the printing business. He practised putting original
thoughts, and thoughts culled from books, into sentences and
paragraphs, a very sensible method of self-improvement. He often tried
his hand at poetry, if it was only a couplet at a time. Longer
compositions he wrote, for no one to see and read but himself. One day
his brother James, curious to see what Benjamin was writing so much
about, looked over his shoulder.
"What have you there, Ben?" he said. "Writing a sermon or your will?
Ay! poetry is it?" catching a glimpse of it. "Then you are a poet are
"Seeing what I can do," Benjamin replied. "We do not know what we can
do till we try. It is not much any way."
"Let me read it, and I will tell you whether it is much or not.
Authors are not good judges of their own productions. They are like
parents, who think their own children handsomest and most promising;
they think their articles are better than they are."
James was in a happy mood for him when he thus spoke. He knew nothing
about Benjamin's ability in writing composition; for this was quite a
while before the newspaper was started for which he wrote.
"I have been reading much poetry of late," added Benjamin, "and I am
anxious to know if I can write it. I like to read it, and I have read
several of the poets since I had access to Mr. Adams' library," This
was after Mr. Adams invited him take books from his library, of which
we have already given an account.
"So much the more reason that I should read what you have written,"
added James. "I do not expect it will be quite equal to Shakespeare."
"Well, read it, I do not care." And Benjamin passed it over to his
brother without further hesitation.
James read it over carefully, and then he re-read it before making a
remark, as if to be sure that he was not mistaken in the quality of
"That is good, Ben. It is really good, much better than I supposed you
could write. Indeed, I did not know that you could write poetry at
all. It is not quite equal to Virgil or Homer, but good for a
printer-boy to write. Have you any other pieces?"
James was honest in these last remarks, and felt more kindly at the
time than he often did towards his brother.
"Yes, I have two or three pieces more which I am going to improve
somewhat. You had better wait till I have rewritten them before you
read them." Benjamin was greatly encouraged by his brother's favorable
opinion of his literary venture, when he made this reply.
"No need of that. Let me see them now, and I can tell you whether they
are worth making better. Some things are not worth making better; and
I think this must be particularly true of poetry. Poor poetry is poor
stuff; better write new than to try to improve it."
James' last plea prevailed, and Benjamin produced the articles for his
examination. They were read with as much interest as the first one,
and they were re-read too, that there might be no mistake in his
judgment. Then his enthusiasm broke out.
"I tell you what it is, Ben, these are good, and I believe that you
can write something worthy of print if you try hard; and if you will
undertake it, you may print and sell a sheet on the street. I have no
doubt that it will sell well."
"I will see what I can do," Benjamin replied, very much elated over
his success. "I hardly think my poetry will read well in print,
though. I have not been writing for the press."
"We can tell best when we read it in print. Get up something as soon
as you can, and let us see," said James.
"I will go right about it, and I will not be long in getting up
something, good, bad, or indifferent."
Within a few days Benjamin produced two street ballads, after the
style of that day. They were better than any thing he had written, but
still susceptible of great improvement. One was entitled "The
Light-house Tragedy," and was founded on the shipwreck of Captain
Worthilake and his two daughters. The other was a sailor's song on the
capture of the famous Teach, or "Blackbeard, the Pirate." James read
them critically, to see if it would do to put them in print and offer
them to the public.
"These are really better than what I read the other day," he remarked,
when he had examined them all he desired. "Now, you may put them into
type, and sell them about the town, if you are willing. I think a good
number of them may be disposed of."
"How many copies will you print?"
"We can print a few to begin with, and let the type remain standing
until we see how they go Then we shall run no risk."
"Shall I do it immediately?"
"Just as soon as you can. The quicker the better. I am anxious to see
how they take with the public."
Benjamin was not long in printing the two ballads, and having them
ready for sale. Under the direction of his brother, he went forth, in
due time, to offer them about the town. Whether he cried them on the
streets as the newsboys do the daily papers now, we have no means of
knowing. But he was successful in selling his wares, whatever his
method was. "The Light-house Tragedy" sold the most readily. That
commemorated an event of recent occurrence, and which excited much
public feeling and sympathy at the time, so that people were quite
prepared to purchase it. It sold even beyond his expectations, and
seemed to develop what little vanity there was in his soul. He began
to think that he was a genuine born poet, and that distinction and a
fortune were before him. If he had not been confronted by his father
on the subject, it is possible that the speculation might have proved
a serious injury to him. But Mr. Franklin learned of his enterprise,
and called him to an account. Perhaps he stepped into his shop, as he
was selling them about town, and gave him a copy. Whether so or not,
his father learned of the fact, and the following interview will show
what he thought of it:
"I am ashamed to see you engaged in such a business, Benjamin. It is
unworthy of a son of Josiah Franklin."
"Why so, father? I can't understand you."
"Because it is not an honorable business. You are not a poet, and can
write nothing of that sort worth printing."
"James approved of the pieces, and proposed that I should print and
sell them," Benjamin pleaded.
"James is not a good judge of poetry, nor of the propriety of hawking
them about town. It is wretched stuff, and I am ashamed that you are
known as the author. Look here; let me show you wherein it is
Benjamin was so dumbfounded that he could not say much in reply; and
his father proceeded to expose the faults of the poetical effusion. He
did not spare the young author at all; nor was he cautious and lenient
in his criticisms. On the other hand, he was severe. And he went on
until Benjamin began to feel sorry that he had ever written a scrap of
"There, I want you should promise me," continued his father, "that you
will never deal in such wares again, and that you will stick to your
business of setting up type."
"Perhaps I may improve by practice," suggested Benjamin, whose
estimation of his literary venture was modified considerably by this
time. "Perhaps I may yet write something worthy of being read. You
could not expect me to write like Pope to begin with."
"No; nor to end with," retorted his father. "You are not a poet, and
there is no use in your trying to be. Perhaps you can learn to write
prose well; but poetry is another thing. Even if you were a poet I
should advise you to let the business alone, for poets are usually
beggars--poor, shiftless members of society."
"That is news to me," responded Benjamin. "How does it happen, then,
that some of their works are so popular?"
"Because a true poet can write something worthy of being read, while a
mere verse-maker, like yourself, writes only doggerel, that is not
worth the paper on which it was printed. Now I advise you to let
verse-making alone, and attend closely to your business, both for your
own sake and your brother's."
Mr. Franklin was rather severe upon his son, although what he said of
his verses was substantially true, as his son freely admitted in
manhood. He overlooked the important fact that it was a commendable
effort of the boy to try to improve his mind. Some of the best poets
who have lived wrote mere doggerel when they began. Also, many of our
best prose writers were exceedingly faulty at first. It is a noble
effort for a boy to put his thoughts into language, and Mr. Franklin
ought to have recognized it as such. If he does not succeed in the
first instance, by patience, industry, and perseverance, he may
triumph at last. Benjamin might not have acted wisely in selling his
verses about town; but his brother, so much older and more experienced
than himself, should have borne the censure of that, since it was done
by his direction. Doubtless, his brother regarded the propriety of the
act less, because he had an eye on the pecuniary profits of the
The decided opposition that Mr. Franklin showed to verse-making put a
damper upon Benjamin's poetic aspirations. The air-castle that his
youthful imagination had built, in consequence of the rapid sale of
his wares, tumbled in ruins. He went back to the office and his work
The reader must bear in mind that this incident occurred before the
discussion of Benjamin with John Collins upon female education,
related in a former chapter. We shall see that his father's criticisms
on his arguments in that discussion proved of great value to him.
"What has happened now, Ben?" inquired James, observing that his
brother looked despondent and anxious. "Are you bringing forth more
"Father doesn't think much of my printing and selling verses of my
own," answered Benjamin. "He has given me such a lecture that I am
almost ashamed of myself."
"How is that? Don't he think they are worthy of print?"
"No. He do not see any merit in them at all. He read them over in his
way, and counted faults enough to show that there is precious little
poetry in me. A beggar and a poet mean about the same thing to him."
"He ought to remember that you are not as old as you will be, if you
live; and you will make improvement from year to year. You can't
expect to write either prose or verse well without beginning and
"All the trial in the world can do nothing for me, I should judge from
father's talk. You ought to have heard him; and he did not spare you
for suggesting the printing and sale of the pieces on the street."
Benjamin said this in a tone of bitter disappointment.
"Well, I suppose that he has heard of two men disagreeing on a
matter," remarked James. "All is, he and I do not agree. I consider
the whole thing wise and proper, and he does not. That is all there is
Perhaps it was a good thing for Benjamin to meet with this obstacle in
his path to success. Rather discouraging, it is true, nevertheless
suited to keep him humble. Benjamin confessed in manhood, that his
vanity was inflated by the sale of his ballads, and he might have been
puffed up to his future injury, had not his father thus unceremoniously
taken the wind out of his sails. That removed the danger. After such a
severe handling he was not inclined to over-rate his poetical talents.
It had the effect, also, to turn his attention almost wholly to prose
writing, in which he became distinguished, as we shall see hereafter.
A single verse of these ballads only has descended to our times. It is
from the second mentioned--the capture of the pirate, as follows:
"Come, all you jolly sailors,
You all so stout and brave;
Come, hearken, and I'll tell you
What happened on the wave.
Oh! 't is of that bloody Blackbeard
I'm going now to tell;
How as to gallant Maynard
He soon was sent to hell--
With a down, down, down, derry down."
Franklin said of this ballad episode:
"I now took a strong inclination for poetry, and wrote some little
pieces. My brother, supposing it might turn to account, encouraged me,
and induced me to compose two occasional ballads. One was called 'The
Light-house Tragedy,' and contained an account of the shipwreck of
Captain Worthilake with his two daughters; the other was a sailor's
song, on taking the famous Teach, or 'Blackbeard, the Pirate.' They
were wretched stuff, in street-ballad style; and when they were
printed, my brother sent me about the town selling them. The first
sold prodigiously, the event being recent, and having made a great
noise. This success flattered my vanity; but my father discouraged me
by criticising my performances and telling me that verse-makers were
generally beggars. Thus I escaped being a poet, and probably a very
From the time that Mr. Franklin criticised his son's argument with
John Collins on female education, Benjamin made special efforts to
improve his style. He knew that Addison's style was regarded as a
model, so he purchased an old volume of his 'Spectator,' and set
himself to work with a determination to make his own style Addisonian.
He subjected himself to the severest test in order to improve, and
counted nothing too hard if he could advance toward that standard.
His own account of his perseverance and industry in studying his
model, as it appears in his "Autobiography," will best present the
"About this time I met with an odd volume of the 'Spectator.' I had
never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and
was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and
wished if possible to imitate it. With that view I took some of the
papers, and making short hints of the sentiments in each sentence,
laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried
to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at
length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable
words that should occur to me. Then I compared my Spectator with the
original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I
found that I wanted a stock of words, or readiness in recollecting and
using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time,
if I had gone on making verses; since the continual search for words
of the same import, but of different length to suit the measure, or of
different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant
necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that
variety in my mind, and make me master of it. Therefore, I took some
of the tales in the 'Spectator,' and turned them into verse; and,
after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them
Let any boy of even moderate abilities subject himself to such rigid
discipline for intellectual improvement as Benjamin did, and his
progress will be rapid, and his attainments remarkable. Such
application and persistent effort win always.
"I also sometimes jumbled my collection of hints into confusion, and
after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order before
I began to form the full sentences and complete the subject. This was
to teach me method in the arrangement of the thoughts. By comparing my
work with the original, I discovered many faults, and corrected them;
but I sometimes had the pleasure to fancy that, in certain particulars
of small consequence, I had been fortunate enough to improve the
method or the language, and this encouraged me to think that I might
in time come to be a tolerable English writer; of which I was
extremely ambitious. The time I allotted for writing exercises, and
for reading, was at night, or before work began in the morning, or on
Sundays, when I contrived to be in the printing house, avoiding as
much as I could the constant attendance at public worship, which my
father used to exact of me when I was under his care, and which I
still continued to consider a duty, though I could not afford time to
In a similar manner Benjamin acquired the Socratic method of
reasoning, which he found at the end of the English grammar that he
studied. Subsequently he purchased "Xenophon's Memorabilia" because it
would afford him assistance in acquiring the Socratic style. He
committed to memory, wrote, practised doing the same thing over and
over, persevering, overcoming, conquering. He acquired the method so
thoroughly as to be expert therein, and practised it with great
satisfaction to himself. Many years thereafter he spoke of the fact as
"While I was intent on improving my language, I met with an English
grammar (I think it was Greenwood's), having at the end of it two
little sketches on the Arts of Rhetoric and Logic, the latter
finishing with a dispute in the Socratic method. And, soon after, I
procured Xenophon's 'Memorable Things of Socrates,' wherein there are
many examples of the same method. I was charmed with it, adopted it,
dropped my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on
the humble inquirer. And being then, from reading Shaftesbury and
Collins, made a doubter, as I already was in many points of our
religious doctrines, I found this method the safest for myself, and
very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore I took
delight in it, practised it continually, and grew very artful and
expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions
the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in
difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so
obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved.
This and the preceding chapter show that a book may decide the future
character and destiny of a man, by inspiring thought, kindling
ambition and a lofty aim, stimulating the mental powers, inspiring
practical and, perhaps, elegant composition, and consecrating the
whole being to a definite purpose. All this was true of Benjamin
"I continued this method some few years, but gradually left it,
retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest
diffidence, never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly
be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that
give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather saying, I
conceive, or apprehend, a thing to be so and so; It appears to
me, or I should not think it, so or so, for such and such reasons;
or, I imagine it to be so; or, It is so, if I am not mistaken.
This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me, when I have
had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures
that I have been from time to time engaged in promoting."
Rev. John Sharp said, "Shakespeare and the Bible have made me bishop
of York." Wesley claimed that the "Imitation of Christ" and "Taylor's
Holy Living and Dying" determined his calling and character. Henry
Martyn was made a missionary by reading the lives of Brainard and
Carey. Pope was indebted to Homer for his poetical inspiration, and it
was the origin of his English "Iliad." Bentham read "Telemachus" in
his youth, and, many years afterwards, he said, "That romance may be
regarded as the foundation-stone of my whole character." Goethe became
a poet in consequence of reading the "Vicar of Wakefield." Carey was
fired to go on a mission to the heathen by reading "Voyages of Captain
Cook." Samuel Drew credited his eminent career to reading Locke's
"Essay on the Understanding." The lives of Washington and Henry Clay
awakened aspirations in Lincoln's soul, that impelled him forward and
gave direction to his life. The national system of education in Great
Britain grew out of a book. Joseph Lancastar read "Clarkson on the
Slave Trade," when he was fourteen years of age, and it awakened his
enthusiasm to teach the blacks in the West Indies. Without the
knowledge of his parents he went thither, and commenced labors for
their mental and moral improvement. His parents learned where he was
and sent for him; but his heart was thoroughly in sympathy with
benevolent work, and he opened a school for the poor at home. So great
was his success that the town, after a few years, erected a commodious
building for his school; and here was the foundation of the present
system of education in the mother-country.
The author once advised a youth of fourteen to read certain books,
accustoming himself to write down in a note-book striking facts and
thoughts for preservation. At the same time he was advised to procure
a blank book and write therein a sentence or short paragraph each day,
without omission, the sentence or paragraph to contain the development
of some thought that was waiting utterance. At that time there was no
prospect that the youth would ever receive a liberal education. He was
a farmer's son, and his father was unable to educate him. The most the
author had in view was to provide him,--a bright, active, promising
boy, fond of reading,--with a source of improving entertainment and
profit. But he caught the idea with so much enthusiasm, and reduced it
to practice so thoroughly, that an unquenchable desire for an
education was nursed into controlling power; and he went through
college, studied theology, became pastor of one of the largest
Congregational churches in the country, stood among the most eloquent
preachers in the land at thirty, received the degree of Doctor of
Divinity at forty, and now, at a little more than fifty, is the
beloved and able pastor of a large church in a New England city. This
result was brought about by the discipline of reading and writing in
his youth, very similar to that which made Benjamin a statesman and