Nathaniel Evans:6 Verses Addressed to Benjamin Franklin
Printed in The London Chronicle, August 31–September 3, 1765; also printed (with modifications) in Nathaniel Evans, Poems on Several Occasions, with Some Other Compositions (Philadelphia, 1772), pp. 108–9.7
Precisely when Evans composed these verses cannot be established, but there seems to be no reason to disregard the statement in the subheading of the London Chronicle printing in 1765 that he wrote them in 1763. Franklin is known to have played his armonica for at least one visitor to his Philadelphia home even before the end of 1762;8 friends’ reports of his new instrument undoubtedly spread rapidly through the little city and many acquaintances must have found opportunity to hear it during the months before he set off on his travels to Virginia and New England or after his return in early November. That the Chronicle printed the verses in the late summer of 1765 while Evans was in London for ordination suggests strongly that he had brought them with him and either actively sought their publication or acquiesced when someone else, possibly William Strahan, asked him to make them available for the Chronicle.
When William Smith included them in the 1772 volume of Evans’ poems, five years after the young man’s death, the verses had undergone considerable change. Instead of the 48 lines in the 1765 printing, there were now only 30, and several of them differed in varying degrees from their earlier form.9 In his preface to the book Smith stated with regard to the poems: “Many of them are fragments, and unfinished; and but few of them were revised by himself, with a view of their being published. Some corrections have, therefore, been made, where there appeared anything materially faulty in respect to Grammar, the exactness of the rhymes, &c. But in these the Publisher has been sparing, and has taken care that the Author’s sense should in no case be deviated from.”
In the light of this statement it is impossible to determine which of the changes in this piece Evans himself made and which Smith or his collaborator Elizabeth Graeme decided upon before sending the book to the printer. The 1765 version is reprinted here and the 1772 changes are all indicated in the notes.
To Benjamin Franklin, ESQ; LL.D. F.R.S.
Occasioned by hearing him play on the Armonica. Written in Philadelphia, 1763.1
Long had we, lost in grateful wonder, view’d2
Each gen’rous act thy patriot soul pursu’d;
Our little State resounds thy just applause,
And pleas’d from thee new fame and honour draws.3
Envy is now, by merit overthrown,
Oblig’d in thee superior worth to own.
The Muse to sacred virtue ever bound,
Beams the bright ray her glorious sons around;
And sure in thee those virtues are combin’d,4
That form the true pre-eminence of mind.5
How were we fixt with rapture and surprize,
When first you told the wonders of the skies!
By simple laws deducing truths sublime,
Before, deep-bosom’d in the womb of time.
With admiration struck, we did survey6
The lambent lightnings innocently play,
And the red thunder from th’ ethereal round7
Burst the black clouds and harmless smite the ground,
As down thy Rod was seen the dreaded fire,
In a swift flame to vanish and expire:
Blest use of art! apply’d to serve mankind,
The noble province of the sapient mind!8
This, this be wisdom’s, this the sage’s claim,
To trace the godhead thro’ this wondrous frame;
For this the soul’s grand faculties were giv’n,9
To search the chain connecting man with heav’n.
But not alone those weightier thoughts controul1
Thy comprehensive far-pervading soul;
The softer studies thy regard command,
And rise with fair refinement from thy hand.
Aided by thee, Urania’s heavenly art
With finer raptures charms th’ extatic2 heart;
Th’ Armonica3 shall join the sacred choir,
Fresh transports kindle, and new joys inspire.
Hark! the soft warblings, rolling4 smooth and clear,
Strike with celestial ravishment the ear,
Conveying inward, as they sweetly roll,
A tide of melting music to the soul.
And sure if aught of mortal-moving strain,
Can touch with joy the high angelic train,
’Tis such a pure transcendent sound divine5
As breathes this heart-enchanting frame of thine.6
Shall not the Muse her slender tribute pay?
Her’s is no venal, but the grateful lay;
Apollo bids it, where such virtues shine,
And pours a graceful sweetness thro’ each line;
Her country too, responsive to the sound,
Swells the full note, and tells it all around.
6. Nathaniel Evans (1742–1767), son of a Philadelphia merchant, Edward Evans, was a student at the Academy of Philadelphia for about six years before being apprenticed at a countinghouse. Finding the mercantile life uncongenial, he returned after his apprenticeship to the College of Philadelphia and on May 30, 1765, “on account of his great merit and promising genius,” the trustees awarded him the M.A. degree on recommendation of the provost and faculty, although he had never taken the B.A. degree. He then went to England and received ordination from the Bishop of London. In December 1765 he returned to America and, under the auspices of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, assumed his charge as an Anglican missionary in Gloucester Co., N.J. Less than two years later he died of tuberculosis. A fellow passenger on his return voyage from England had been Elizabeth Graeme, WF’s former sweetheart (above, VII, 177 n), and with her Evans conducted a poetical correspondence during his remaining years. To her and to his former teacher, William Smith, he left his poems, and in 1772 Smith published them, together with one of Evans’ sermons. DAB; Edgar L. Pennington, Nathaniel Evans A Poet of Colonial America (Ocala, Fla., 1935). Along with Thomas Godfrey and Francis Hopkinson, Evans was probably one of the “young Muses” of Philadelphia, some of whose verses David Hall and BF had sent to Strahan and Whitefoord in December 1762; see above, pp. 167–8, 173.
7. The list of subscribers printed in the 1772 volume indicates that DF subscribed to one copy and WF to three.
8. A month after BF reached Philadelphia, Mrs. Ann Graeme, Elizabeth’s mother, wrote her daughter that she had called at the Franklin home and had heard BF play. To Elizabeth Graeme, Dec. 3, 1762, PMHB, XXXIX (1915), 270–1.
9. The 1772 version also divided the whole into five stanzas of six, six, four, six, and eight lines respectively.
1. In the 1772 version “F.R.S.” after BF’s name and “Written in Philadelphia, 1763” are omitted.
2. In the 1772 version the first line reads: “In grateful wonder lost, long had we view’d.”
3. The 1772 version omits the next four lines.
4. In the 1772 version this line reads: “In thee those various virtues are combin’d.”
5. The 1772 version omits the next four lines.
6. In the 1772 version this line reads: “What wonder struck us when we did survey.”
7. In the 1772 version this couplet and the next are transposed and revised. They now read: “And down thy rods beheld the dreaded fire / In a swift flame descend—and then expire; / While the red thunders, roaring loud around, / Burst the black clouds, and harmless smite the ground.” After “rods” is an asterisk and Smith added a footnote: “Alluding to his noble discovery of the use of Pointed Rods of metal for saving houses from damage by lightning.”
8. The 1772 version omits the next two lines.
9. In the 1772 version this couplet reads: “For this the soul’s best faculties were giv’n, / To trace great nature’s laws from earth to heav’n!”
1. For this and the next couplet the 1772 version substitutes a single one: “Yet not these themes alone thy thoughts command, / Each softer science owns thy fostering hand.”
2. The 1772 version substitutes “feeling” for “extatic.”
3. The 1772 version spells Armonica with an “H.”
4. The 1772 version substitutes “sounding” for “rolling.”
5. In the 1772 version this couplet reads: “’Tis this enchanting instrument of thine, / Which speaks in accents more than half divine!”
6. The 1772 version omits the remaining six lines.