Philip Freneau: (1752-1832) Contribution as American Poet

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       PHILIP FRENEAU, 1752-1832 New York City was the birthplace of Freneau, the greatest poet born in America before the Revolutionary War. He graduated at Princeton in 1771, and became a school teacher, sea captain, poet, and editor.

Philip Freneau
Philip Freneau

      Philip Freneau was of Huguenot ancestry. Born in New York and grew up in Monmouth, New Jersey, he attended the College of New Jersey where he met Hugh Henry Brakenbridge with whom he collaborated on Father Bembo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca (1770) a prose satire on American manners, and a patriotic poem. “The Rising Glory of America”, read at rower graduation in 1771 and was published the following year. Henry, a poet of revolution, he incorporated the new stirrings of European Romanticism and escaped the imitativeness and vague universality of the Hartford Wits. The key to both his success and his failure was his passionately democratic spirit combined with an inflexible temper. The Hartford Wits all of them undoubted patriots, reflected the general cultural conservatism of the educated classes. Freneau set himself against this holdover of old Tory attitudes. He complained of “the writings of an aristocratic, speculating faction at Hartford, in favor of monarchy and titular distinctions.” Although Freneau received a fine education and was as well acquainted with the classics as any Hartford Wit, he embraced liberal and democratic causes. From a Huguenot (radical French Protestant) background, Freneau fought as a militiaman during the Revolutionary War. In 1780, he was made a captive and imprisoned one after the other in two British ships where he almost died before his family managed to get him released. His poem “The British Prison Ship” is a bitter condemnation of the world with gore.” This piece and other revolutionary works, including “Eutaw Springs,” “American Liberty,” “A Political Litany,” “A Midnight Consultation,” and “George the Third’s Soliloquy,” brought him fame as the “Poet of the American Revolution.”

      Freneau edited a number of journals during his life keeping always the great cause of democracy in mind. When Thomas Jefferson helped him establish the militant, anti-Federalist National Gazette in 1791, Freneau became the first powerful, crusading newspaper editor in America, and the literary predecessor of William Cullen Bryant, William Lloyd Garrison, and H.L. Mencken. As a poet and editor, he adhered to his own democratic ideals. The American Village (1772) was a short collection of poems, it was followed by the “Pictures of Columbus” (1774). When the Revolution began he contributed the patriotic poems in support of the American Cause to the newspapers but in 1776 he withdrew from politics and traveled to the West Indies. His occasional poetry was published in Brakenridge’s United Sates Magazine (1779) together with the poems on more patriotic themes such as “George The Third’s Soliloquy”, “The Loyalists” and “America Independent”. His later poems include “Journeys from Philadelphia to New York” (1787) which introduced the humorous persona of Robert Slender, a weaver, one of the fictional voices, which Freneau would use in his political essays. With folding of the National Gazette, he came to Monmouth where he published an almanac. He founded and edited Jersey Chronicle, Letters on Various Interesting and Important Subjects, a collection of some of the pro-Jefferson letters, that appeared in Philadelphia Journal, Aurora in 1799.

      His popular poems, published in newspapers for the average reader, regularly celebrated American subjects. “The Virtue of Tobacco” concerns the indigenous plant, a mainstay of the southern economy. While “The Jug of Rum” celebrates the alcoholic drink of the West Indies, a crucial commodity of early American trade and a major New World export. The common American characters lived in “The Pilot of Hatteras,” as well as in poems about quack doctors and bombastic evangelists. He also commanded a natural and colloquial style appropriate to a genuine democracy but he could also rise to refined neo-classic lyricism in often-anthologized works such as “The Wild Honey Suckle” (1786) which evokes a sweet-smelling native shrub. Not until the “American Renaissance” that began in the 1820s would American poetry surpass the heights that Freneau had scaled 40 years earlier. He spent his last years living in poverty in New Jersey and died of exposure after being caught in a snowstorm.

      The additional groundwork for later literary achievement was laid during the early years. Nationalism inspired publications in many fields, leading to a new appreciation of things American. Noah Webster (1758-1843) devised an American Dictionary, as well as an important reader and speller for the schools. His Spelling Book sold more than 100 million copies over the years. Updated Webster’s dictionaries are still standing today. The American Geography, by Jedidiah Morse, another landmark reference work, promoted knowledge of the vast and expanding American land itself. Some of the most interesting if non-literary writings of the period are the journals of frontiersmen and explorers such as Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and Zebulon Pike (1779-1813), who wrote accounts of expeditions across the Louisiana Territory, the vast portion of the North American continent that Thomas Jefferson purchased from Napoleon in 1803.

      The Connecticut wits are also described as Yale Poets’ or ‘the Hartford Wits’ or ‘the Wicked Wits’ - were not a school, a movement or an association. There were on accidents of similar beliefs and literary interests grouped in a single time and place-Hartford, Connecticut, in the middle and the late 1780s. The group included among others, Barlow, Dwight, Hopkins. Humphreys and Trumbull. Of these only Barlow, Dwight, Tiumbull retain their repute, frail as it is; yet they were considered eminent men of letters in their own days. They have got a kind of joint value as representatives of the early stirrings of national literary consciousness. The devoted themselves to the satires of the contemporary scene, of democratic politics, of deism and of physio-cratic economics and of almost all the liberal manifestations of the day. Their works in prose or poetry are generally polished and graceful.

      The Revolution broke out when he was a young man, and he was moved to write satiric poetry against the British. Tyler says that "a running commentary on his Revolutionary satires would be an almost complete commentary on the whole Revolutionary struggle; nearly every important emergency and phase of which are photographed in his keen, merciless, and often brilliant lines." In one of these satires Freneau represents Jove investigating the records of Fate:—

 "And first on the top of a column he read—
 Of a king with a mighty soft place in his head,
 Who should join in his temper the ass and the mule,
 The Third of his name and by far the worst fool."

      We can imagine the patriotic colonists singing as a refrain:—

 "… said Jove with a smile,
 Columbia shall never be ruled by an isle,"

 or this:—

 "The face of the Lion shall then become pale,
 He shall yield fifteen teeth and be sheared of his tail,"

      But Freneau's satiric verse is not his best, however important it may be to historians.

      His best poems are a few short lyrics, remarkable for their simplicity, sincerity, and love of nature. His lines:—

"A hermit's house beside a stream  With forests planted round,"  are suggestive of the romantic school of Wordsworth and Coleridge, as is also The Wild Honeysuckle, which begins as follows:—

"Fair flower, that dost so comely grow,  Hid in this silent, dull retreat, Untouched thy honied blossoms blow,  Unseen thy little branches greet. "By Nature's self in white arrayed, She bade thee shun the vulgar eye, And planted here the guardian shade,  And sent soft waters murmuring by."

      Although Freneau's best poems are few and short, no preceding American poet had equaled them. The following will repay careful reading: The Wild Honeysuckle, The Indian Burying Ground, and To a Honey Bee.

      He died in 1832, and was buried near his home at Mount Pleasant, Monmouth County, New Jersey.

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