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Ben Franklin

Life of Benjamin Franklin by Jared Sparks



There have been various conjectures respecting the source, from which Dr. Franklin took the first idea of the following epitaph. William Temple Franklin says, that he wrote it, when he was only twenty-three years of age, as appears by the original (with various corrections) found among his papers, and from which this is a faithful copy." He then prints it in these words.

"The Body
Benjamin Franklin,
(Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents torn out,
And stript of its lettering and gilding,)
Lies here, food for worms.
But the work shall not be lost,
For it will, as he believed, appear once more,
In a new and more elegant edition,
Revised and corrected

It had before been printed somewhat differently in Mr. Vaughan's edition. The variation is in the following lines, which are thus printed by Mr. Vaughan.

"Yet the work itself shall not be lost,
For it will, as he believed, appear once more,
In a new
And more beautiful edition,
Corrected and amended
The Author."

In a note Mr. Vaughan adds; " A newspaper, in which I have seen this copy of Dr. Franklin's epitaph on himself, says, that it first appeared in a Boston newspaper, established and printed by Dr. Franklin." As a copy of Mr. Vaughan's edition was examined by Dr. Franklin, after a full impression was taken off, and before the work was published, it is presumed that the epitaph as here printed, and this note, passed under his eye. He made several corrections, which Mr. Vaughan included in the errata, but no error is noted in his remark on the epitaph. Hence the date must have been earlier than is mentioned by William Temple Franklin, because the New England Courant, the only newspaper in which Dr. Franklin was concerned in Boston, ceased in the year 1727, when he was only twenty-one years old.

It is intimated in the Edinburgh Review, (Vol. II. p. 448,) that he took the first hint of this epitaph from one in Latin, written on Jacob Tonson, the bookseller, by an Eton scholar, which was printed, with an English translation, in the Gentleman's Magazine for February, 1736. The translation is an unsuccessful paraphrase. The original is likewise inserted in the biographical notice of Tonson, in the Memoirs of the Kit-Cal Club. The last four lines are that bear on the subject.

"Hic jacet Bibliopola,
Folio vitae dilapso,
Expectans novam editionem
Auctiorem et emendatiorem."

There is certainly a striking resemblance between these lines and the closing part of Franklin's epitaph; but, as this latter was written nine or ten years at least before the other, it is obvious, that, if there is any plagiarism in the case, it must lie at the door of the Eton scholar.

It has been supposed, also, that an epitaph on the celebrated John Cotton, written by Mr. Woodbridge, about the year, 1653, may have suggested the first hint to Franklin.

"A living, breathing Bible; tables where
Both covenants at large engravers were;
Gospel and law in's heart had each its column,
His head an index to the sacred volume;
His very name a title-page; and next,
His life a commentary on the text.
O, what a monument of glorious worth,
When in a new edition he comes forth;
Without errata may we think he' ll be
In leaves and covers of eternity."

Others again have imagined, that they have discovered the origin of Franklin's epitaph in the following lines on the death of John Foster, who set up the first printing-press in Boston, written by Joseph Capen, and published in 1681.

"Thy body, which no activeness did lack,
Now's laid aside like an old almanac;
But for the present only 's out of date,
'T will have at length a far more active state.
Yea, though with dust thy body soiled be,
Yet at the resurrection we shall see
A fair edition, and of matchless worth,
Free from errata, new in Heaven set forth;
'T is but a word from God, the great Creator,
It shall be done when he saith Imprimatur.

That Franklin had seen one or both of these pieces is probable; it is moreover possible, that he may have derived from them the first thought of the epitaph; yet, even if this could be proved, which it cannot be, the resemblance between them is so very remote, that it would not detract from the claim which the epitaph may justly have to be considered as an original composition.