Benjamin Franklin Papers

From Benjamin Franklin to Madame Brillon: “The Ephemera,” 20 September 1778

To Madame Brillon: “The Ephemera”7

AL (draft): Cornell University Library; French translations: American Philosophical Society (three),8 Bibliothèque de la Société Eduenne, Autun,9 Institut de France; copy or transcript: Yale University Library;1 incomplete copy: Huntington Library

The following piece, originally published as “Lettre à Madame B.” but better known as “The Ephemera,” strikes a rare note in the canon of Franklin’s writings: a note of melancholy. In its bittersweet brooding over the brevity of life and the vanity of human endeavor, it does not try to instruct or reform, but merely to create a mood.

That Franklin should have felt old and somewhat discouraged in the summer of 1778 is hardly surprising. He was seventy-two. Flanked by the brisk and efficient Adams, not quite forty-three, and by the restless, hostile thirty-seven-year-old Arthur Lee, infatuated with the equally young Madame Brillon who was ever-so-gently rejecting him, he may well have thought that with the signing of the treaty of alliance in February his mission in France was coming to a close.2

The visit to Moulin-Joli that triggered “The Ephemera” may have taken place on August 13, one of the few occasions on which Franklin absented himself from Paris.3 He composed the fantasy in the course of the following weeks, dated it September 20, not long before his second visit to Anet, and probably took with him a French translation for the benefit of Madame Brillon who did not read English.4

Two years later, he described “some few Circumstances” of the piece’s composition and dissemination in a letter to William Carmichael:5

The person to whom it was addressed is Madame Brillon a Lady of most respectable Character and pleasing Conversation Mistress of an amiable family in this Neighbourhood, with which I spend an Evening twice in every Week. She has among other Elegant accomplishments that of an Excellent Musician, and with her Daughters who sing prettily, and some friends who play, She kindly entertains me and my Grandson with little Concerts, a Dish of Tea and a Game of Chess. I call this my Opera; for I rarely go to the Opera at Paris. The Moulin Joly is a little Island in the Seine about 2 Leagues from hence, Part of the Country Seat of another friend, where we visit every Summer and spend a Day in the pleasing Society of the ingenious learned and very polite Persons who inhabit it.6 At the Time when the Letter was written, all conversations at Paris were filled with Disputes about the Musick of Gluck and Picciny, a German and an Italian Musician, who divided the Town into Violent Parties.7 A friend of the Lady having obtained a Copy of it under a promise not to give another, did not observe that Promise so that many have been taken, and it is become as publick as such a thing can well be that is not printed. But I could not dream of its being heard of at Madrid.8 The Thought was partly taken from a Little Piece of some unknown Writer which I met with 50 years since in a newspaper, and which the sight of the Ephemera brought to my Recollection.9

When shown the piece, the Doctor’s old friend and translator, Barbeu-Dubourg, was so enthusiastic that, taking his cue from its theme, he urged prompt publication: “Il est bien essentiel de faire paroitre tres promptement la traduction de ce petit morceau exquis qui perdroit chaque jour, pour ne pas dire chaque heure, beaucoup de sa valeur.”1 Franklin, who at first had shied away from publication, as he told Carmichael, changed his mind and printed, as a bagatelle, a French translation called “Lettre à Madame B.” on his Passy press.2

Passy. Sept 20. 1778.

You may remember, my dear Friend, that when we lately spent that happy Day in the delightful garden and sweet Society of the Moulin-Joli, I stopt a little in one of our Walks, and staid some time behind the Company. We had been shewn numberless Skeletons of a kind of little Fly, called an Ephemere, all whose successive Generations we were told were bred and expired within the Day. I happen’d to see a living Company of them on a Leaf, who appear’d to be engag’d in Conversation. You know I understand all the inferior Animal Tongues: my too great Application to the Study of them is the best Excuse I can give for the little Progress I have made in your charming Language. I listned thro’ Curiosity to the Discourse of these little Creatures, but as they in their national Vivacity spoke three or four together,3 I could make but little of their Discourse. I found however, by some broken Expressions that I caught now and then, they were disputing warmly the Merit of two foreign Musicians, one a Cousin, the other a Musketo; in which Dispute they spent their time seemingly as regardless of the Shortness of Life, as if they had been sure of living a Month. Happy People! thought I, you live certainly under a wise, just and mild Government, since you have no public Grievances to complain of, nor any Subject of Contention but the Perfections or Imperfections of foreign Music.4 I turned from them to an old greyheaded one, who was single on another Leaf, and talking to himself. Being amus’d with his Soliloquy, I have put it down in writing, in hopes it will likewise amuse her to whom I am so much indebted for the most pleasing of all Amusements, her delicious Company, and her heavenly Harmony.

“It was, says he, the Opinion of learned Philosophers of our Race, who lived and flourished long before my time, that this vast World, the Moulin Joli, could not itself subsist more than 18 Hours; and I think there was some Foundation for that Opinion, since by the apparent Motion of the great Luminary that gives Life to all Nature, and which in my time has evidently declin’d considerably towards the Ocean at the End of our Earth, it must then finish its Course, be extinguish’d in the Waters that surround us, and leave the World in Cold and Darkness, necessarily producing universal Death and Destruction.5 I have lived seven of those Hours; a great Age, being no less than 420 minutes of Time. How very few of us continue so long! I have seen Generations born, flourish, and expire. My present Friends are the Children and Grandchildren of the Friends of my Youth, who are now, alas, no more! And I must soon follow them; for by the Course of Nature, tho’ still in Health, I cannot expect to live above 7 or 8 Minutes longer. What now avails all my Toil and Labour in amassing Honey-Dew on this Leaf, which I cannot live to enjoy! What the political Struggles I have been engag’d in for the Good of my Compatriotes, Inhabitants of this Bush; or my philosophical Studies for the Benefit of our Race in general! For in Politics, what can Laws do without Morals!6 Our present Race of Ephemeres will in a Course of Minutes, become corrupt like those of other and older Bushes, and consequently as wretched. And in Philosophy how small our Progress! Alas, Art is long, and Life short!7 My Friends would comfort me with the Idea of a Name they say I shall leave behind me; and they tell me I have lived long enough, to Nature and to Glory:8 But what will Fame be to an Ephemere who no longer exists? And what will become of all History, in the 18th Hour, when the World itself, even the whole Moulin Joli, shall come to its End, and be buried in universal Ruin? To me, after all my eager Pursuits, no solid Pleasures now remain, but the Reflection of a long Life spent in meaning well, the sensible Conversation of a few good Lady-Ephemeres, and now and then a kind Smile, and a Tune from the ever-amiable Brillante.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

7A facsimile of the original published version, in French, appears in The Bagatelles from Passy (The Eakins Press, New York, [1967]), pp. 143–6. This famous essay has been the subject of many studies. For the most extensive discussion of its background, and a detailed comparison of extant versions, see Gilbert Chinard, “Random Notes on Two Bagatelles,” APS Proc., CIII, 1959, pp. 740–60. A literary analysis can be found in J.A. Leo Lemay’s chapter on Franklin in Major Writers of Early American Literature, E. Emerson, ed., (Wisconsin, 1972), pp. 234–8. See also Alfred Owen Aldridge, Franklin and His French Contemporaries (New York, 1957), pp. 167–8, and Lopez, Mon Cher Papa, pp. 50–2.

8The earliest translation, dated Sept. 20, 1778, and probably made for Mme. Brillon, pre-dates BF’s corrections and does not include his addition in praise of the French government. It is clearly the work of an English-speaking person whose French was good but far from perfect, and who knew Mme. Brillon well enough to translate “tune,” in the last sentence, as “sonate.”

The second APS manuscript, which bears no date but incorporates BF’s additions, corresponds to the text published in his Bagatelles: it offers an introductory “Avertissement” which is virtually identical (with minor variations in capitalization) to the one BF printed. It also bears his endorsement: “Les Ephemeres.” As in the printed copy, this translation lacks BF’s original footnote saying “Caesar.” It does contain the three footnote markers given in the printed text, but only gives two of the footnotes: the quotation from Horace, and “La Riviere de Seine,” explaining “Ocean” in the text.

The third APS manuscript is similar to the second. It, too, contains the “Avertissement,” although it is in a different hand from the text. The only two footnotes provided in this version are the quotation from Horace, and the attribution “Hipocrate.”

9This is the most florid of the translations; it does not include BF’s footnotes or the “Avertissement.”

1Faithful to BF’s text, but the French words are misspelled. The hand, it seems to us, is Carmichael’s.

2BF had already hinted to Mme. Brillon that he feared he might soon be leaving France; see her letter of Sept. 13. See also her letter of Sept. 30 and the references cited there.

3See the commissioners to Sartine, Aug. 13.

4The first of the translations listed above at the APS.

5To William Carmichael, June 17, 1780 (Library of Congress).

6The owner, Claude-Henri Watelet, and his amie, Mme. Marguerite Lecomte, are identified in XXIV, 171 n. A number of their letters, undated and in the APS, discuss social engagements. Mme. Lecomte wrote Mme. Brillon about an upcoming party in honor of the “insurgens allies et amis,” to which she plans to invite all the inhabitants “de la Pensilvanie francoise.” The guest of honor, of course, is to be “le chef du congres de Passi.” In another note, Watelet and Lecomte remind BF and WTF of a dinner “samedi au louvre” with Mme. Brillon. A third message expresses the pair’s regrets at having missed BF’s and WTF’s visit.

7Paris indeed was abuzz with the controversy between the partisans of Christopher Willibald von Gluck, a frequent visitor from Vienna, and those of the Italian Niccolo Piccinni (or Piccini), appointed court composer in late 1776. Gluck’s Armide was admired for its tempestuous and tragic passages, a break from the over-stylized tradition, Piccinni’s Roland for its airs délicieux which the Queen, however, out of loyalty to her countryman, refrained from applauding. For the above and the facetious way in which each faction defaced the other’s posters with puns see Bachaumont, Mémoires secrets, XI, 78, 98. For the composers see The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie, ed., (20 vols., London, Washington, Hong Kong, 1980), VII, 465–72; XIV, 723–7. Talking about a “Cousin” and a “Musketo,” two words for the same insect, BF is hinting that the raging debate is really a tempest in a teapot.

8Where Carmichael was stationed as secretary to minister-designate John Jay.

9The “Little Piece” in question was originally published in The Free Thinker, April 24, 1719 under the title, “The Vanity and Ambition of the Human Mind,” and was reprinted in the Pa. Gaz., no. 366, Dec. 4–11, 1735, during BF’s tenure as editor. Aldridge, op. cit., p. 167, 250–1; Chinard, op. cit., p. 751. Chinard also speculates that BF was influenced by Réaumur’s treatise on “Mouches qu’on appelle Ephémères,” published in the 1745 volume of the Histoire de l’Académie Royale des Sciences, a copy of which he owned. The famous naturalist, fascinated by the insects, also drew moral lessons suggested by the brevity of their lives. Ibid., p. 754.

1From Barbeu-Dubourg, undated (APS).

2Only two bound copies of the collected Bagatelles have survived; one in the Franklin Collection at Yale University, the other at the Bibliothèque Nationale.

3A gentle hint to the Gallic habit of interrupting one another.

4This sentence, beginning “Happy People!”, was a later addition in the margin, undoubtedly written when BF realized that multiple copies of the letter were being made and circulated. He would not have wanted to appear too critical of French society.

5As early as 1749, the hypothesis that the end of the world would be due to the extinguishing of the sun had brought Buffon in conflict with the theologians of the Sorbonne. By 1777 he had theorized that the polar ice would ultimately extend to the equator, killing all life. Chinard argues persuasively that BF, aware of his friend’s ideas, is giving them here an oblique endorsement: op. cit. pp. 756–7.

6Footnote in text: “Quid leges sine moribus. Hor.” The quotation is from Horace’s Odes, III, 24:35.

7Footnote in text: “Hippocrates.” The quotation is from Aphorisms, Sec. 1, I: “Life is short, the Art long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult.” W.H.S. Jones, ed., Hippocrates (4 vols., Cambridge and London, 1923–49) IV, 99.

8Footnote in text: “Caesar.” Actually, the quotation is from Cicero’s Pro Marcello, 25, and refers to a thought Caesar supposedly expressed.

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