And this I sweare by blackest brooke of hell,
AMONG the jocularities of literature none is greater than Squire Bickerstaff's; and none has had greater results--with perhaps one exception. The practicality of the Squire's jest and the flavor of it suited the century of Squire Western rather than our own. But its excuse was in the end it served of breaking the old astrologer's hold upon the people.
Jonathan Swift is the writer to whom the original Bickerstaff squibs are in the main to be ascribed. It is due to Swift's clarity and strength that they are among the best of literary fooling.
But Swift was not alone. He had the help of Addison, Steele, Prior, Congreve, and other wits of Will's Coffee-House and St. James's. Together they set all London laughing. Upon Swift's shoulders, however, falls the onus of the joke which must have been his recreation amid pamphleteering and the smudging of his ecclesiastical hand with political ink. It happened in 1708.
The English almanac was not in Swift's day as in later times a simple calendar of guesses about the weather. It was rather a "prognosticator" in ambiguous phrase of war, pestilence, murder, and such horrors as our yellow press nowadays serves up to readers, like in development to the conning public of the old almanacs. It was at all times solemn and dogmatic. What the almanac prognosticated was its philomath's duty to furnish. His science and prescience builded a supposed influence of the stars and their movements upon the moral life of man.
Squire Bickerstaff's jest had to do with almanac-makers, and was directed against a chief pretender, Dr. Partridge, the astrologer and philomath Pope refers to when he speaks of the translation of the raped "Lock" to the skies:
"This Partridge soon shall view in cloudless skies,
In the seventeenth century the ascendency of these charlatans had. become alarming. One of the most adroit and unscrupulous of their number--William Lilly--had large following. They not only had the popular ear, but now and then a man like Dryden inclined to them. Nor did Sir Thomas Browne "reject a sober and regulated astrology."
At the beginning of the eighteenth century the scandal of their excesses was growing, and it was then that Swift came forward--just as Swift was constantly coming forward with his great humanity, in one instance to save Ireland the infliction of Wood's halfpence, and again in protest against English restriction of Irish trade; poor Swift's heart was always with the poor, the duped and undefended--it was then that Swift came forward with "Predictions for the year 1708. Wherein the Month, and the Day of the Month, are set down, the Person named, and the great Actions and Events of next Year particularly related, as They will come to Pass. Written to Prevent the People of England from being farther imposed on by the vulgar Almanack-Makers."
The surname of the signature, "Isaac Bickerstaff," Swift took from a locksmith's sign. The Isaac he added as not commonly in use.
"I have considered," he begins, "the gross abuse of astrology in this kingdom, and upon debating the matter with myself, I could not possibly lay the fault upon the art, but upon those gross impostors, who set up to be the artists. I know several learned men have contended that the whole is a cheat; that it is absurd and ridiculous to imagine the stars can have any influence at all upon human actions, thoughts, or inclinations; and whoever has not bent his studies that way may be excused for thinking so, when he sees in how wretched a manner that noble art is treated by a few mean, illiterate traders between us and the stars; who import a yearly stock of nonsense, lies, folly, and impertinence, which they offer to the world as genuine from the planets, though they descend from no greater a height than their own brains. . . .
"As for the few following predictions, I now offer the world, I forebore to publish them till I had perused the several Almanacks for the year we are now entered upon. I found them all in the usual strain, and I beg the reader will compare their manner with mine: and here I make bold to tell the world that I lay the whole credit of my art upon the truth of these predictions; and I will be content that Partridge and the rest of his clan may hoot me for a cheat and impostor, if I fail in any single particular of moment. . . .
"My first prediction is but a trifle, yet I will mention it to show how ignorant these sottish pretenders to astrology are in their own concerns: it relates to Partridge, the Almanack-maker. I have consulted the star of his nativity by my own rules, and find he will infallibly die upon the 29th of March next, about eleven at night, of a raging fever; therefore I advise him to consider of it, and settle his affairs in time. . . ."
An "Answer to Bickerstaff by a Person of Quality," evidently from the hand of Swift and his friends, followed these "Predictions."
"I have not observed for some years past," it begins, "any insignificant paper to have made more noise, or be more greedily bought, than that of these Predictions. . . . I shall not enter upon the examination of them; but think it very incumbent upon the learned Mr. Partridge to take them into his consideration, and lay as many errors in astrology as possible to Mr. Bickerstaff's account. He may justly, I think, challenge the 'squire to publish the calculation he has made of Partridge's nativity, by the credit of which he so determinately pronounces the time and manner of his death; and Mr. Bickerstaff can do no less in honour, than give Mr. Partridge the same advantage of calculating his, by sending him an account of the time and place of his birth, with other particulars necessary for such a work. By which, no doubt, the learned world will be engaged in the dispute, and take part on each side according as they are inclined. . . ."
"The Accomplishment of the first of Mr. Bickerstaff's Predictions, being an Account of the Death of Mr. Partridge, the Almanack-Maker, upon the 29th instant in a Letter to a Person of Honour, written in the year 1708," continues the jocularity.
"My Lord: In obedience to your Lordship's commands, as well as to satisfy my own curiosity, I have some days past inquired constantly after Partridge the Almanack-maker, of whom it was foretold in Mr. Bickerstaff's Predictions, published about a month ago, that he should die the 29th instant, about eleven at night, of a raging fever. . . . I saw him accidentally once or twice, about ten days before he died, and observed he began very much to droop and languish, though I hear his friends did not seem to apprehend him in any danger. About two or three days ago he grew ill,. . . but when I saw him he had his understanding as well as ever I knew, and spoke strong and hearty, without any seeming uneasiness or constraint [saying]. . . . `I am a poor ignorant fellow, bred to a mean trade, yet I have sense enough to know that all pretences of foretelling by astrology are deceits for this manifest reason: because the wise and the learned, who can only judge whether there be any truth in this science, do all unanimously agree to laugh at and despise it; and none but the poor, ignorant vulgar give it any credit, and that only upon the word of such silly wretches as I and my fellows, who can hardly write or read.'. . .
"After half an hour's conversation I took my leave, being almost stifled with the closeness of the room. I imagined he could not hold out long, and therefore withdrew to a little coffee-house hard by, leaving a servant at the house with orders to come immediately and tell me, as near as he could, the minute when Partridge should expire, which was not above two hours after."
The burlesque next before the public, "Squire Bickerstaff detected; or, the Astrological Impostor convicted, by John Partridge, student of physic and astrology, a True and Impartial account of the Proceedings of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., against me," was doubtless drawn up by Addison's friend Yalden, whom Scott speaks of as "Partridge's near neighbor."
"The 28th of March, Anno Dom. 1708," it begins, "being the night this sham prophet had so impudently fixed for my last, which made little impression on myself: but I cannot answer for my whole family. for my wife, with concern more than usual, prevailed on me to take somewhat to sweat for a cold; and between the hours of eight and nine to go to bed; the maid, as she was warming my bed, with a curiosity natural to young wenches, runs to the window, and asks of one passing the street who the bell tolled for? Dr. Partridge, says he, the famous almanack-maker, who died suddenly this evening: the poor girl, provoked, told him he lied like a rascal; the other very sedately replied, the sexton had so informed him, and if false, he was to blame for imposing upon a stranger. She asked a second, and a third, as they passed, and every one was in the same tone. Now, I do not say these are accomplices to a certain astrological 'squire, and that one Bickerstaff might be sauntering thereabout, because I will assert nothing here, but what I dare attest for plain matter of fact. My wife at this fell into a violent disorder, and I must own I was a little discomposed at the oddness of the accident. In the mean time one knocks at my door; Betty runs down, and opening, finds a sober grave person, who modestly inquires if this was Dr. Partridge's? She, taking him for some cautious city patient, that came at that time for privacy, shews him into the dining-room. As soon as I could compose myself, I went to him, and was surprised to find my gentleman mounted on a table with a two-foot rule in his hand, measuring my walls, and taking the dimensions of the room. Pray, sir, says I, not to interrupt you, have you any business with me?--Only, sir, replies he, order the girl to bring me a better light, for this is a very dim one.--Sir, says I, my name is Partridge.--O! the doctor's brother, belike, cries he; the staircase, I believe, and these two apartments hung in close mourning will be sufficient, and only a strip of bays round the other rooms. The doctor must needs die rich, he had great dealings in his way for many years; if he had no family coat, you had as good use the escutcheons of the company, they are as showish, and will look as magnificent, as if he was descended from the blood royal.--With that I assumed a greater air of authority, and demanded who employed him, or how he came there?--Why, I was sent, sir, by the company of undertakers, says he, and they were employed by the honest gentleman, who is executor to the good doctor departed; and our rascally porter, I believe, is fallen fast asleep with the black cloth and sconces, or he had been here, and we might have been tacking up by this time.--Sir, says I, pray be advised by a friend, and make the best of your speed out of my doors, for I hear my wife's voice (which, by the by, is pretty distinguishable), and in that corner of the room stands a good cudgel, which somebody has felt before now; if that light in her hands, and she know the business you come about, without consulting the stars, I can assure you it will be employed very much to the detriment of your person.--Sir, cries he, bowing with great civility, I perceive extreme grief for the loss of the doctor disorders you a little at present, but early in the morning I will wait on you with all the necessary materials. . . .
"Well, once more I got my door closed, and prepared for bed, in hopes of a little repose after so many ruffling adventures; just as I was putting out my light in order to it, another bounces as hard as he can knock; I open the window and ask who is there and what he wants? I am Ned, the sexton, replies he, and come to know whether the doctor left any orders for a funeral sermon, and where he is to be laid, and whether his grave is to be plain or bricked?--Why, sirrah, say I, you know me well enough; you know I am not dead, and how dare you affront me after this manner?--Alackaday, sir, replies the fellow, why it is in print, and the whole town knows you are dead; why, there is Mr. White, the joiner, is fitting screws to your coffin; he will be here with it in an instant: he was afraid you would have wanted it before this time. . . . In short, what with undertakers, embalmers, joiners, sextons, and your damned elegy hawkers upon a late practitioner in physic and astrology, I got not one wink of sleep the whole night, nor scarce a moment's rest ever since. . . .
"I could not stir out of doors for the space of three months after this, but presently one comes up to me in the street, Mr. Partridge, that coffin you was last buried in, I have not yet been paid for: Doctor, cries another dog, how do you think people can live by making of graves for nothing? next time you die, you may even toll out the bell yourself for Ned. A third rogue tips me by the elbow, and wonders how I have the conscience to sneak abroad without paying my funeral expenses.--Lord, says one, I durst have swore that was honest Dr. Partridge, my old friend, but, poor man, he is gone.--I beg your pardon, says another, you look so like my old acquaintance that I used to consult on some private occasions; but, alack, he is gone the way of all flesh.--Look, look, look, cries a third, after a competent space of staring at me, would not one think our neighbour, the almanack-maker, was crept out of his grave, to take the other peep at the stars in this world, and shew how much he is improved in fortune-telling by having taken a journey to the other?...
"My poor wife is run almost distracted with being called widow Partridge, when she knows it is false; and once a term she is cited into the court to take out letters of administration. But the greatest grievance is a paltry quack that takes up my calling just under my nose, and in his printed directions, with N. B.--says he lives in the house of the late ingenious Mr. John Partridge, an eminent practitioner in leather, physic, and astrology...." The astrologer, forgetting to refer to the stars for evidence, indignantly declared himself to be alive, and Swift's returning "Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., against what is objected to by Mr. Partridge in his Almanack for the present year, 1709, by the said Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.," complains:
"Mr. Partridge has been lately pleased to treat me after a very rough manner in that which is called his almanack for the present year... [regarding] my predictions, which foretold the death of Mr. Partridge to happen on March 29, 1708. This he is pleased to contradict absolutely in the almanack he has published for the present year....
"Without entering into criticisms of chronology about the hour of his death, I shall only prove that Mr. Partridge is not alive. And my first argument is this: about a thousand gentlemen having bought his almanacks for this year, merely to find what he said against me, at every line they read, they would lift up their eyes, and cry out betwixt rage and laughter, `they were sure no man alive ever writ such damned stuff as this.' Neither did I ever hear that opinion disputed:. . . Therefore, if an uninformed carcase walks still about and is pleased to call himself Partridge, Mr. Bickerstaff does not think himself any way answerable for that. Neither had the said carcase any right to beat the poor boy who happened to pass by it in the street, crying, `A full and true account of Dr. Partridge's death,' etc.
". . . I will plainly prove him to be dead, out of his own almanack for this year, and from the very passage which he produces to make us think him alive. He there says `he is not only now alive, but was also alive upon that very 29th of March which I foretold he should die on': by this he declares his opinion that a man may be alive now who was not alive a twelvemonth ago. And indeed there lies the sophistry of his argument. He dares not assert he was alive ever since that 29th of March, but that he `is now alive and was so on that day': I grant the latter; for he did not die till, night, as appears by the printed account of his death, in a letter to a lord; and whether he be since revived, I leave the world to judge. . . ."
The joke had gained its end; the astrologer and philomath had been ridiculed out of existence. But the name of the "astrological 'squire" was in everybody's mouth; and when in April, 1709, Steele began "The Tatler," Isaac Bickerstaff, Esquire, spoke in the dedication of a gentleman who "had written Predictions, and Two or Three other Pieces in my Name, which had render'd it famous through all Parts of Europe; and by an inimitable Spirit and Humour, raised it to as high a Pitch of Reputation as it could possibly arrive at."
The Inquisition in Portugal had, with utmost gravity, condemned Bickerstaff's predictions and the readers of them, and had burnt his predictions. The Company of Stationers in London obtained in 1709 an injunction against the issuing of any almanac by John Partridge, as if in fact he were dead.
If the fame of this foolery was through all parts of Europe, it must also have crossed to the English colonies of America, and by reference to this fact we may explain the curious literary parallel Poor Richard's Almanac affords. Twenty-five years later Benjamin Franklin played the selfsame joke in Philadelphia.
Franklin was but two years old when Swift and his Bickerstaff coadjutors were jesting. But by the time he had grown and wandered to Philadelphia and become a journeyman printer--by 1733--Addison, Steele, Prior, and Congreve had died, and Swift's wonderful mind was turned upon and eating itself in the silent deanery of St. Patrick's.
Conditions about him gave Franklin every opportunity for the jest. The almanac in the America of 1733 had even greater acceptance than the like publication of England in Isaac Bickerstaff's day. No output of the colonial press, not even the publication of theological tracts, was so frequent or so remunerative. It was the sole annual which commonly penetrated the farmhouse of the colonists, where it hung in neighborly importance near the Bible, Fox's "Book of Martyrs," and Jonathan Edwards's tractate on "The Freedom of the Human Will." And it had uses. Besides furnishing a calendar, weather prophecies, and jokes, it added receipts for cooking, pickling, dyeing, and in many ways was the "Useful Companion" its title-page proclaimed.
So keen, practical, and energetic a nature as Franklin's could not let the opportunity pass for turning a penny, and with the inimitable adaptability that marked him all his life he begins his Poor Richard of 1733:
"Courteous Reader, I might in this place attempt to gain thy favour by declaring that I write Almanacks with no other view than that of the publick good, but in this I should not be sincere; and men are now-a-days too wise to be deceiv'd by pretences, how specious soever. The plain truth of the matter is, I am excessive poor, and my wife, good woman, is, I tell her, excessive proud; she can not bear, she says, to sit spinning in her shift of tow, while I do nothing but gaze at the stars; and has threatened more than once to burn all my books and rattling-traps (as she calls my instruments), if I do not make some profitable use of them for the good of my family. The printer has offer'd me some considerable share of the profits, and I have thus began to comply with my dame's desire.
"Indeed, this motive would have had force enough to have made me
publish an Almanack many years since, had it not been overpowered
by my regard for my good friend and fellow-student, Mr. Titan
Leeds, whose interest I was extreamly unwilling to hurt. But this
obstacle (I am far from speaking it with pleasure) is soon to be
removed, since inexorable death, who was never known to respect
merit, has already prepared the mortal dart, the fatal sister has
already extended her destroying shears, and that ingenious man must
soon be taken from us. He dies, by my calculation, made at his
request, on Oct. 17, 1733, 3 ho. 29 m., P.M., at the very instant
of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury. By his own calculation he will
survive till the 26th of the same month. This small difference
between us we have disputed whenever we have met these nine years
past; but at length he is inclinable to agree with my judgment.
Which of us is most exact, a little time will now determine. As,
therefore, these Provinces may not longer expect to see any of his
performances after this year, I think myself free to take up my
task, and request a share of publick encouragement, which I am the
more apt to hope for on this account, that the buyer of my Almanack
may consider himself not only as purchasing an useful utensil, but
as performing an act of charity to his poor
Franklin had a more eager biter than Partridge proved to Bickerstaff's bait, and Titan Leeds, in his American Almanack for 1734, showed how uneasy was the hook:
"Kind Reader, Perhaps it may be expected that I should say something concerning an Almanack printed for the Year 1733, said to be writ by Poor Richard or Richard Saunders, who for want of other matter was pleased to tell his Readers, that he had calculated my Nativity, and from thence predicts my Death to be the 17th of October, 1733. At 29 min. past 3 a-clock in the Afternoon, and that these Provinces may not expect to see any more of his (Titan Leeds) Performances, and this precise Predicter, who predicts to a Minute, proposes to succeed me in Writing of Almanacks; but notwithstanding his false Prediction, I have by the Mercy of God lived to write a diary for the Year 1734, and to publish the Folly and Ignorance of this presumptuous Author. Nay, he adds another gross Falsehood in his Almanack, viz.--That by my own Calculation, I shall survive until the 26th of the said Month (October), which is as untrue as the former, for I do not pretend to that Knowledge, altho, he has usurpt the Knowledge of the Almighty herein, and manifested himself a Fool and a Lyar. And by the mercy of God I have lived to survive this conceited Scriblers Day and Minute whereon he has predicted my Death; and as I have supplyed my Country with Almanacks for three seven Years by past, to general Satisfaction, so perhaps I may live to write when his Performances are Dead. Thus much from your annual Friend, Titan Leeds, October 18, 1733, 3 ho. 33 min. P.M."
". . . In the preface to my last Almanack," wrote Franklin, in genuine humor, in Poor Richard for 1734, "I foretold the death of my dear old friend and fellow-student, the learned and ingenious Mr. Titan Leeds, which was to be the 17th of October, 1733, 3 h., 29 m., P.M., at the very instant of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury. By his own calculation, he was to survive till the 26th of the same month, and expire in the time of the eclipse, near 11 o'clock A.M. At which of these times he died, or whether he be really yet dead, I cannot at this present writing positively assure my readers; forasmuch as a disorder in my own family demanded my presence, and would not permit me, as I had intended, to be with him in his last moments, to receive his last embrace, to close his eyes, and do the duty of a friend in performing the last offices to the departed. Therefore it is that I cannot positively affirm whether he be dead or not; for the stars only show to the skilful what will happen in the natural and universal chain of causes and effects; but 'tis well known, that the events which would otherwise certainly happen, at certain times, in the course of nature, are sometimes set aside or postpon'd, for wise and good reasons, by the immediate particular disposition of Providence; which particular disposition the stars can by no means discover or foreshow. There is, however (and I can not speak it without sorrow), there is the strongest probability that my dear friend is no more; for there appears in his name, as I am assured, an Almanack for the year 1734, in which I am treated in a very gross and unhandsome manner, in which I am called a false predicter, an ignorant, a conceited scribbler, a fool and a lyar. Mr. Leeds was too well bred to use any man so indecently and so scurrilously, and moreover his esteem and affection for me was extraordinary; so that it is to be feared that pamphlet may be only a contrivance of somebody or other, who hopes, perhaps, to sell two or three years' Almanacks still, by the sole force and virtue of Mr. Leeds' name. But, certainly, to put words into the mouth of a gentleman and a man of letters against his friend, which the meanest and most scandalous of the people might be ashamed to utter even in a drunken quarrel, is an unpardonable injury to his memory, and an imposition upon the publick.
"Mr. Leeds was not only profoundly skilful in the useful science he profess'd, but he was a man of exemplary sobriety, a most sincere friend, and an exact performer of his word. These valuable qualifications, with many others, so much endeared him to me, that although it should be so, that, contrary to all probability, contrary to my prediction and his own, he might possibly be yet alive, yet my loss of honour, as a prognosticator, cannot afford me so much mortification as his life, health, and safety would give me joy and satisfaction. . . ."
Again, Leeds, in The American Almanack for 1735, returns Franklin's jest:
"Corteous and Kind Reader: My Almanack being in its usual Method, needs no Explanation; but perhaps it may be expected by some that I shall say something concerning Poor Richard, or otherwise Richard Saunders's Almanack, which I suppose was printed in the Year 1733 for the ensuing Year 1734, wherein he useth me with such Good Manners, I can hardly find what to say to him, without it is to advise him not to be too proud because by his Predicting my Death, and his writing an Almanack. . . .
"But if Falsehood and Inginuity be so rewarded, What may he expect if ever he be in a capacity to publish that that is either Just or according to Art? Therefore I shall say little more about it than, as a Friend, to advise he will never take upon him to predict or ascribe any Person's Death, till he has learned to do it better than he did before. . . ."
To this exhortation Franklin makes the following gay sally in Poor Richard for 1735.
". . . Whatever may be the musick of the spheres, how great soever
the harmony of the stars, 'tis certain there is no harmony among
the star-gazers: but they are perpetually growling and snarling at
one another like strange curs, or like some men at their wives. I
had resolved to keep the peace on my own part, and offend none of
them; and I shall persist in that resolution. But having receiv'd
much abuse from Titan Leeds deceas'd (Titan Leeds when living
would not have used me so): I say, having receiv'd much abuse from
the ghost of Titan Leeds, who pretends to be still living, and to
write Almanacks in spight of me and my predictions, I can not help
saying, that tho' I take it patiently, I take it very unkindly. And
whatever he may pretend, 'tis undoubtedly true that he is really
defunct and dead. First, because the stars are seldom disappointed,
never but in the case of wise men, sapiens dominabitur asties, and
they foreshadowed his death at the time I predicted it. Secondly,
'twas requisite and necessary he should die punctually at that time
for the honor of astrology, the art professed both by him and his
father before him. Thirdly, 'tis plain to every one that reads his
two last Almanacks (for 1734 and '35), that they are not written
with that life his performances used to be written with; the wit is
low and flat; the little hints dull and spiritless; nothing smart
in them but Hudibras's verses against astrology at the heads of the
months in the last, which no astrologer but a dead one would have
inserted, and no man living would or could write such stuff as the
rest. But lastly, I shall convince him from his own words that he
is dead (ex ore suo condemnatus est); for in his preface to his
Almanack for 1734, he says: `Saunders adds another gross falsehood
in his Almanack, viz., that by my own calculation, I shall survive
until the 26th of the said month, October, 1733, which is as
untrue as the former.' Now if it be as Leeds says, untrue and a
gross falsehood, that he survived till the 26th of October, 1733,
then it is certainly true that he died before that time; and if he
died before that time he is dead now to all intents and purposes,
anything he may say to the contrary notwithstanding. And at what
time before the 26th is it so likely he should die, as at the time
by me predicted, viz., the 17th of October aforesaid? But if some
people will walk and be troublesome after death, it may perhaps be
borne with a little, because it cannot well be avoided, unless one
would be at the pains and expense of laying them in the Red Sea;
however, they should not presume too much upon the liberty allowed
them. I know confinement must needs be mighty irksome to the free
spirit of an astronomer, and I am too compassionate to proceed
suddenly to extremities with it; nevertheless, tho, I resolve with
reluctance, I shall not long defer, if it does not speedily learn
to treat its living friends with better manners.
Here for the nonce the jeu d'esprit ended. In carrying the matter further Franklin hardly showed the taste of Bickerstaff. The active, bristling, self-assertive hubris which characterized his early manhood led him further on to stand over the very grave of Leeds. Before he made his Almanac for 1740 his competitor had died. But even Leeds dead he seemed to deem fair play.
"But to put this matter beyond dispute, I shall acquaint the world with a fact, as strange and surprising as it is true; being as follows, viz.:
"On the 4th instant, toward midnight, as I sat in my little study writing this Preface, I fell fast asleep; and continued in that condition for some time, without dreaming any thing, to my knowledge. On awaking I found lying before me the following, viz.:
"`DEAR FRIEND SAUNDERS: My respect for you continues even in this separate state; and I am griev'd to see the aspersions thrown on you by the malevolence of avaricious publishers of Almanacks, who envy your success. They say your prediction of my death in 1733 was false, and they pretend that I remained alive many years after. But I do hereby certify that I did actually die at that time, precisely at the hour you mention'd, with a variation only of 5 min. 53 sec., which must be allow'd to be no great matter in such cases. And I do further declare that I furnish'd them with no calculations of the planets' motions, etc., seven years after my death, as they are pleased to give out: so that the stuff they publish as an Almanack in my name is no more mine than 'tis yours.
"`You will wonder, perhaps, how this paper comes written on your table. You must know that no separate spirits are under any confinement till after the final settlement of all accounts. In the meantime we wander where we please, visit our old friends, observe their actions, enter sometimes into their imaginations, and give them hints waking or sleeping that may be of advantage to them. Finding you asleep, I enter'd your left nostril, ascended into your brain, found out where the ends of those nerves were fastened that move your right hand and fingers, by the help of which I am now writing unknown to you; but when you open your eyes you will see that the hand written is mine, tho, wrote with yours.
"`The people of this infidel age, perhaps, will hardly believe this story. But you may give them these three signs by which they shall be convinced of the truth of it.--About the middle of June next, J. J----n,[324-7]* Philomat, shall be openly reconciled to the Church of Rome, and give all his goods and chattels to the chappel, being perverted by a certain country schoolmaster. On the 7th of September following my old Friend W. B----t shall be sober 9 hours, to the astonishment of all his neighbours:--And about the same time W. B. and A. B. will publish another Almanack in my name, in spight of truth and common sense.
"`As I can see much clearer into futurity, since I got free from
the dark prison of flesh, in which I was continually molested and
almost blinded with fogs arising from tiff, and the smoke of burnt
drams; I shall in kindness to you, frequently give you information
of things to come, for the improvement of your Almanack: being,
Dear Dick, Your Affectionate Friend,
"For my own part, I am convinced that the above letter is genuine.
If the reader doubts of it, let him carefully observe the three
signs; and if they do not actually come to pass, believe as he
pleases. I am his humble Friend,
In this wise ended Poor Richard's jest. Franklin's style throughout is so simple and direct that one is at first inclined to scout the suggestion that the joke is not entirely original. It is impossible, however, to suppose that Franklin, with his broad reading, did not know Squire Bickerstaff's. The development of the humor is wholly imitated. But Franklin made the method his own so thoroughly that his wit has those keener, subtler, more agile qualities which have distinguished American from the slower and sedater humor of the English. In the Bickerstaff jocularity evidences of the death of Partridge are enumerated in material surroundings of a not too prosperous London quack. Franklin, on the other hand, ironically and graphically reasons upon supposititious traits and qualities of character and breeding.
In England, Swift's squib having given the death-blow to astrology, "Merlinus Liberatus, by John Partridge," was published years after, but shorn of its specious and misleading pretences. Franklin's jesting was more self-seeking.
Not one of Franklin's biographers or editors has referred to the Bickerstaff joke. Upon the contrary, in an "Introduction to Fac-simile of Poor Richard's Almanack for 1733," published by The Duodecimos in 1894, it is asserted that Franklin "in a strain of delightful satire upon the already venerable pretensions of almanac-makers to foretell the future,. . . disposes of this difficulty by a method so novel, so ingenious, and withal of an illuminating power so far-reaching as to set the whole colony talking about it."
It need hardly be added that none of Swift's biographers--all being English--have hinted at Franklin's pleasantry.
The inextinguishable laughter--the true Homeric asbestos gelos--which is the atmosphere of both incidents, fits them to rank with the imaginary durance of Sancho Panza upon his island, or with Tartarin in Tarascon, or, to go to the first humor of literature, with the advance and retreat of Thersites in the council of Zeus--nourished kings. And in Britain and America all our heroes were real.
Upon other occasions than the Saunders-Leeds jesting Franklin loved playful feint; he had "Bagatelles" for his delight. It was a quizzical side of the character which made him the first of our notable American humorists. To amuse himself with an oriental apologue which he called "The Parable of Persecution," he had the story bound with a Bible. From this book he would read the legend aloud, amazing his auditors that so beautiful a scriptural passage had escaped their knowledge.
The form in which Franklin cast the tale is this:
"And it came to pass after these things, that Abraham sat in the door of his tent, about the going down of the sun.
"And behold a man, bowed with age, came from the way of the wilderness, leaning on a staff.
"And Abraham arose and met him, and said unto him, `Turn in, I pray thee, and wash thy feet, and tarry all night, and thou shalt arise early on the morrow, and go thy way.'
"But the man said, `Nay, for I will abide under this tree.'
"And Abraham pressed him greatly: so he turned and they went into the tent, and Abraham baked unleavened bread, and they did eat.
"And when Abraham saw that the man blessed not God, he said unto him, `Wherefore dost thou not worship the most high God, Creator of heaven and earth?'
"And the man answered and said, `I do not worship the God thou speakest of, neither do I call upon his name; for I have made to myself a god, which abideth alway in mine house, and provideth me with all things.'
"And Abraham's zeal was kindled against the man, and he arose and fell upon him, and drove him forth with blows into the wilderness.
"And at midnight God called unto Abraham, saying, `Abraham, where is the stranger?'
"And Abraham answered and said, `Lord, he would not worship thee, neither would he call upon thy name; therefore have I driven him out from before my face into the wilderness.'
"And God said, `Have I borne with him these hundred and ninety and eight years, and nourished him, and clothed him, notwithstanding his rebellion against me; and couldst not thou, that art thyself a sinner, bear with him one night?'
"And Abraham said, `Let not the anger of the Lord wax hot against his servant; lo, I have sinned; lo, I have sinned; forgive me, I pray thee.'
"And Abraham arose, and went forth into the wilderness, and sought diligently for the man, and found him, and returned with him to the tent; and when he had treated him kindly, he sent him away on the morrow with gifts.
"And God spake again unto Abraham, saying, `For this thy sin shall thy seed be afflicted four hundred years in a strange land.
"`But for thy repentance will I deliver them; and they shall come forth with power, and with gladness of heart, and with much substance.'"
Franklin's fine literary sense and feeling would doubtless have told him that the tale was oriental, even if Jeremy Taylor, whose "Discourse on the Liberty of Prophesying" it brings to a finish, had not introduced it with the words, "I end with a story which I find in the Jews' book.[331-8]*
"When Abraham sat at his tent-door, according to his custom, waiting to entertain strangers, he espied an old man stooping and leaning on his staff, weary with age and travail, coming toward him, who was a hundred years of age; he received him kindly, washed his feet, provided supper, caused him to sit down; but, observing that the old man eat and prayed not, nor begged for a blessing on his meat, he asked him why he did not worship the God of heaven. The old man told him that he worshipped the fire only, and acknowledged no other god. At which answer Abraham grew so zealously angry that he thrust the old man out of his tent, and exposed him to all the evils of the night and an unguarded condition. When the old man was gone, God called to Abraham, and asked him where the stranger was. He replied, `I thrust him away because he did not worship thee.' God answered him, `I have suffered him these hundred years, although he dishonoured me; and couldst not thou endure him one night, when he gave thee no trouble?' Upon this saith the story, Abraham fetched him back again, and gave him hospitable entertainment and wise instruction. Go thou and do likewise, and thy charity will be rewarded by the God of Abraham."
Franklin's pleasantries with this parable led Lord Kames to ask it of him. The fertile Scotchman at once incorporated it in his "Sketches of the History of Man," and published it in 1774, accrediting it to Franklin. "The charge of plagiarism has, on this account," says Bishop Heber, in his life of Jeremy Taylor, "been raised against Franklin; though he cannot be proved to have given it to Lord Kames as his own composition. With all Franklin's abilities and amiable qualities," continues the clear-eyed bishop, "there was a degree of quackery in his character which. . . has made the imputation of such a theft more readily received against him than it would have been against most other men of equal eminence."
In more finely sensitive writers who have treated Franklin there is a feeling that he "borrowed." The words of the missionary bishop show the sentiment was common in England a century and a quarter ago. In our country the conviction was expressed with more spirit in a colloquy[334-9]* between a New England man and a Virginian, preserved in John Davis's manuscript, "Travels in America during 1798-99, 1800, 1801, 1802."
"I obtained," wrote Davis of his visit to Washington, "accommodations at the Washington Tavern, which stands opposite the Treasury. At this tavern I took my meals at the public table, where there was every day to be found a number of clerks, employed at the different offices under government, together with about half-a-dozen Virginians and a few New England men. There was a perpetual conflict between these Southern and Northern men, and one night I was present at a vehement dispute, which terminated in the loss of a horse, a saddle, and bridle. The dispute was about Dr. Franklin; the man from New England, enthusiastic in what related to Franklin, asserted that the Doctor, being self-taught, was original in everything that he had ever published.
"The Virginian maintained that he was a downright plagiarist. "New England Man.--Have you a horse here, my friend?
"Virginian.--Sir, I hope you do not suppose that I came hither on foot from Virginia. I have him in Mr. White's stable, the prettiest Chickasaw that ever trod upon four pasterns.
"New England Man.--And I have a bay mare that I bought for ninety dollars in hard cash. Now I, my friend, will lay my bay mare against your Chickasaw that Dr. Franklin is not a plagiarist.
"Virginian.--Done! Go it! Waiter! You, waiter!
"The waiter obeyed the summons, and, at the order of the Virginian, brought down a portmanteau containing both Franklin's `Miscellanies' and Taylor's `Discourses.'
"The New England man then read from the former the celebrated parable against persecution. . . . And after he had finished he exclaimed that the `writer appeared inspired.'
"But the Virginian maintained that it all came to Franklin from Bishop Taylor's book, printed more than a century ago. And the New England man read from Taylor. . . . When he had done reading, a laugh ensued; and the Virginian, leaping from his seat, called to Atticus, the waiter, to put the bay mare in the next stall to the Chickasaw and to give her half a gallon of oats more, upon the strength of her having a new master!
"The New England man exhibited strong symptoms of chagrin, but wagered `a brand-new saddle' that this celebrated epitaph of Franklin's undergoing a new edition was original. The epitaph was then read:
of Benjamin Franklin, Printer
(Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents torn out,
And stript of its lettering and gilding),
Lies here, food for worms.
Yet the work itself shall not be lost,
For it will (as he believ'd) appear once more,
In a new
And more beautiful Edition,
Corrected and Amended
"The Virginian then said that Franklin robbed a little boy of it. `The very words, sir, are taken from a Latin epitaph written on a bookseller, by an Eton scholar.
Hic FINIS JACOBI TONSON[338-10]*
Perpoliti Sociorum Principis:
Qui velut Obstretrix Musarum
In Lucem Edidit
Felices Ingenii Partus.
Lugete Scriptorum Chorus,
Et Frangite Calamos!
Ille vester Margine Erasus deletur,
Sed hæc postrema Inscriptio
Huic Primæ Mortis Paginae
Ne Prælo Sepulchri commissus
Ipse Editor careat Titulo:
Hic Jacet Bibliopola
Folio vitæ delapso
Expectans novam Editionem
Auctoriem et Emendatiorem.'
"And then, says Mr. Davis, the bet was awarded the Virginian. He referred to the `Gentleman's Magazine' for February, 1736, where the Latin inscription accredited to the Eton scholar, with a translation by a Mr. P----, was to be found.
"After this second decision the Virginian declared that he would lay his boots against the New Englander's that Franklin's pretended discovery of calming troubled waters by pouring upon them oil might be found in the third book of Bede's `History of the Church;' or that his facetious essay on the airbath is produced, word for word, from Aubrey's `Miscellanies.' But the New Englander, who had lost horse, saddle, and bridle, declined to run the risk on Dr. Franklin of going home without his boots."
There are other instances of the philosopher's palpable taking. To one, Franklin's editor, Mr. Bigelow, adverts when he notes in Franklin's letter of November 5, 1789, to Alexander Smith: "I find by your letter that every man has patience enough to hear calmly and coolly the injuries done to other people. "The marvellous precision and terseness of Swift--that keen, incisive melancholy wit of his from which great writers have taken ideas and phrases as gold-seekers have picked nuggets from California earth--Swift had more finely said what Franklin stumbled after when he wrote that he "never knew a man who could not bear the misfortunes of another like a Christian."
Franklin had originality. His many devices are evidence. But careful study of that which brought him much public attention--bagatelles by which he attached himself to popular affection--show all-round appropriation. He loved to stand in public light--to hear applause of himself. He loved to quiz his listeners, to bamboozle his readers. If his buying and applauding public believed Poor Richard's proverbs sprang from his active mind instead of having been industriously gathered from old English and other folk proverbs and dyed with his practical humor--"the wisdom of many ages and nations," as Franklin afterwards put it--that was their blunder by which he would gain gold as well as glory. Even "Richard Saunders" was not original with Franklin. It was the pen-name of a compiler of English almanacs. The young printer busily working his press doubtless chuckled at his deceptions--in spite of his filched maxim about honesty being the best policy.
And it went with him all through life. His love of public applause, his desire to accumulate and his gleaming, quizzical humor led him on. His wonderful ease at adopting others, products and making them his own one may admire if he turn his eyes from the moral significance, the downright turpitude of not acknowledging the source. Franklin's practice would certainly not stand the test of universal application which his great contemporary, Kant, demanded of all acts.
There has been of late endeavor to rehabilitate Franklin's industrious common sense and praise its circumstance. So late as last year our American ambassador to St. James addressed students of the Workingmen's College in London upon the energy, self-help, and sense of reality of this early American, and found the leading features of his character to be honesty(!) and respect for facts.
It is, after all, a certain grace inherent in Franklin, a human feeling, a genial simplicity and candor, a directness of utterance and natural unfolding of his matter which are his perennial value in a literary way, and which warrant the estimate of an English critic who calls him the most readable writer yet known on the western side of the Atlantic.