Exile to exile, England to America,
Driven hence by nothing more than faith
In our convictions, we commune once more,
Old friend, man of science, man of God.
Here they torched your house, there they burnt mine.
Here your people fear your love of France—
Marat, Danton, and the bonnet rouge—
As mine once feared my fealty to the Crown.
Hail, fellow, outcast across the sea!
And thanks abundant, deep, long overdue
For such words as you imaged up to spice
That sky-high tribute to my poor career
Splashed in the magazine a few months past.
Now England numbers me among the great,
“One who stood undaunted before the storm.”
Half my royal wage I draw in praise,
Then pension of five hundred pounds a year.
And so I wait for night without complaint,
Grateful for such grace as sunlight yields
On a London balcony in early summer,
And letters such as yours that bid exchange
For welcome sentiments a bit of lore,
The legend of a boy, a kite, a key.
Otherwise the tale would die with me.
Such kindness from you, my father’s friend—
(Whose friendship ever joined me to my father)
My late father whom I mourned early and late
As reft from me by politics before God—
Such kindness in the twilight sounds as sweet
As posthumous blessing from his troubled ghost.
With all the trackless universe to roam,
I think he haunts the same old firesides,
Creaking floorboards with his buckled shoes,
Or stealing the owl’s voice to interrogate
Whoever, wakeful, might be listening: “Who!
Who’s there? Remember me? Who am I now?
Who was I when I walked upon the earth?
Did anybody know?”
In cocked tricorne, frock-coat, and knee breeches,
Wigged or wigless, his broad bald pate,
His lips curled in delight of wine and wit
And ladies’ kisses, heavy-lidded eyes,
First to see us through the double lens
The world first saw a man behind, bemused
As much that he had made the spectacles
As that they made folks stop and stare at him.
And so he goes, my father, in death as life,
Rebel, skeptic, rogue, and scientist.
And who should say, O man of God,
That spirit who prized perfectibility
And never knew an end of inquiry,
Who should say this one is not improved
By death, who sought to profit by all means?
Joseph, you recall when we were young,
My father and I, how I followed him
And how he doted on this “natural son,”
Made in his image, a few inches taller;
Leaner I was, more “imperial” some did say.
I never knew my mother. He was all to me.
He let me choose my horse, my hat, my school,
Thinking such freedom vital to character.
I would have followed my father anywhere,
And did, even into the cannon’s mouth.
As Captain to his Colonel, at twenty-three
I led our cavalry against the French
And Indians on the frontier. When peace came
I followed him as clerk in the Assembly,
Postmaster of the City, then all the land.
I was his pupil, factotum, and friend,
Partner in those famed experiments,
One of which now prompts the letter to hand.
(I know I do digress: the ink runs low.
I meant to answer you forthwith,
All about the day we chased the storm
For Truth’s sake. But this is science too.
Was I not my father’s chief experiment?)
I followed him to England as his aide
On the legation. He bid me study law.
I read my Blackstone at the Inns of Court:
“The King can do no wrong, the King
Is absolute, all-perfect and immortal . . .”
The “round Temple,” that turreted shrine
To civil liberties, became my Church.
And nightly in flickering candlelight beneath
High hammer-beams of Middle Temple Hall
I dined with the best-born men of England,
All of us schooled to rule as gentlemen.
In this I passed my father, the day I passed
Down the aisle of Westminster Abbey,
I, the bastard son of a village printer,
Called to the English bar. A gentleman.
Well-placed letters from this facile pen
Conspired with well-placed friends to fire the comet
Of my preferment. In the court, my star
Blazed up to eclipse my father’s embassy.
I’d followed him to England as his aide,
But led him home to America like a Lord,
By our new King named First Royal Governor.
Now maybe his rage is gone, the furious gloom
In which I found myself darkly confined
Years later, when the world turned upside down.
He tried to pull me with him, lectured me,
Threatened, warned me. I was past all that.
In pride I had become my father’s sire,
A Governor for him to rebel against,
Chafe, assail, forswear as boys will do
(My own son, Temple, took his turn with me).
But that generation’s wrath surprised us all,
Epic, continental, no one could believe it,
Not I, the royal warden of a State.
Then that gang of cutthroats in the night
Clapped me in irons, led me like a bear
Through streets and village greens of New England.
Two long years I rotted under guard
In a verminous cell so low I could not stand.
Think of my dear wife dying of grief,
Dead four months before I heard of it.
Then my son turned against me, lured away
From filial love and loyalty by—who else?
His grandfather, the glamorous minister
To France! While my father spoiled my son
With French wine, mistresses, and foolish hope
The boy would be our next great diplomat,
I starved in a reeking solitary cell.
While they brokered exchange of prisoners,
I lay with rats in a hole, buried alive,
Sustained by faith my father would save me
The next week, tomorrow, by nightfall.
I could not doubt him, though the world swears
It never could have held me against his will.
Enough of that! When it served the State
To trade a rebel Governor for me,
I got fresh linen, meat, and wooden teeth,
My pension, a new wife, and afterlife
In exile, as living symbol, as prodigy,
The most loved, the most hated man on earth.
Now, for your scientific history.
The incident under study is a trifle,
A woodcut of a kite, a squall, a key,
A man in the prime of his life and his young son
Chasing thunderheads into a pasture
Behind a cold breath of wind. The storm
Mutters low in its throat. The horizon glows.
The kite soars straight up in the storm’s face
Like a wish out of one’s hand, a frail thing,
A silk handkerchief tacked to a cedar cross
Riding the draft, a wire at the top
To catch the lightning. For a while
We are just man and child, father and son
Dodging raindrops, watching our joy ascend
Higher and higher the unseen tower of wind,
Equal to each other in our delight,
That shared vision of an ideal, joined to us
For a moment by a sleazy string of twine.
That we had seen before. But this was science.
Tied to the end of twine was a silk ribbon
He wrapped his thumb in, a non-conductor,
So the charge would not shoot through his frame
Should we have luck and net the beast we stalked.
To snare the fire a key hung at the knot.
Still the silk must stay dry while the twine
Steeped in the electric medium of the rain,
Else the operation’s bright success
Would spell death to the doctor. Rain fell
And we waited in a cowshed the miracle,
Tethered, watching our kite through the doorway.
It came before we knew, so subtly
I hadn’t the eyes to see it, as the clouds
Closed heavier and darker overhead
And drums of thunder rolled across the field.
The loose twine fibers stood up on their ends
Like fur on a cat’s back arched in lethal fury.
“Look, Billie! How the charge excites the line:
Fire enough in the key to fry a mouse!”
But who else would believe it? The iron key
Was dull as when I snatched it from the door.
Here is the part of the story few have heard:
I was not a child then, I was twenty.
I was the man pursued a whirlwind once
As branches and treetrunks flew through the air,
Spurring my spooked horse into a thick wood
Where I caught his tornado—it was my report
That proved his theory of the whirlwind’s cause.
I had not his genius, but I was brave, and
Thereby his praise, if not his love, I earned.
“Here, father, let them wonder about this!”
I cried over his shoulder, and held the key,
Cutting a brand in my hand no one could deny.
He drew the lightning, I was the one burned.
- William Franklin (1730–1813), son of Benjamin Franklin, was the last royal governor of New Jersey. Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) was a noted English theologian and scientist, and an advocate of the French Revolution.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 8, on page 32
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