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26 June, 2013
From Boyhood to Manhood
XIV. Learning the Art of Composition
by Thayer, William M.

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 manhood.

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 you?"

"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 the composition.

"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 defective."

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 poetry.

"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 scheme.

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 quite crestfallen.

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 poetry?"

"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 trying."

"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 to it."

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 bad one."
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 facts.
"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 back again.

"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 practise it."
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.

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 follows:
"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.

"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."
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 Franklin.

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 philosopher.


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