The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

IX. The Beginnings of Verse, 1610–1808

§ 18. Philip Freneau

Philip Freneau was born in New York of Huguenot ancestry in 1752, and died near Freehold, New Jersey, in 1832. His long and eventful life was spent in a variety of pursuits. After he graduated from Princeton in 1771, he was author, editor, government official, trader, and farmer. As regards the genesis of his poems, two facts in his life are especially important. His newspaper work encouraged a fatal production of the satirical and humorous verse that gave him reputation; and his trading voyages inspired poems descriptive of the scenery of the southern islands, and made possible what is perhaps his most original d work, his naval ballads.

From the volumes of the most recent edition of Freneau’s poems, aggregating 1200 pages, the reader gains the impression that had this poet written half as much he might have written twice as well. That he was something of the artist is shown by the care with which he revised his poems for five successive editions; but his revisions are sometimes actually for the worse. Yet Freneau surpassed all his contemporaries not only in quality but also in sheer quantity and in variety of subject and form. Furthermore, his work presents an almost unique combination of satiric power, romantic imagination, and feeling for nature. At one extreme is the bitter invective of his satires; at the other, the delicate fancy of his best lyrics. His early poems show the influence of Milton, as in The Power of Fancy; of Gray, as in The Monument of Phaon and The Deserted Farm House; and of Goldsmith, as in The American Village—all of which contain lines of original power and beauty; but in his Pictures of Columbus, he reaches complete originality. When the poet has Columbus exclaim in the face of death,

  • The winds blow high; one other world remains;
  • Once more without a guide I find the way,
  • he shows that at last the new world has produced a poet.

    In his voyages Freneau found the tropical scenery of his descriptive poems. The Beauties of Santa Cruz, though unequal and crude, has a definiteness of imagery and a simplicity of diction that set it apart from the conventional school of Thomson. The House of Night, which combines description and narrative, is the most remarkable poem written in America up to its time. In the use of “romantic” scenery and of death as a theme, Freneau was not a pioneer; but in his supernaturalism and in the strange and haunting music of his lines, he stood alone, and, as has often been remarked, anticipated Coleridge and Poe. Although Freneau was known in England, it may be doubted whether he influenced the English romantic poets. More probably, both he and they were influenced by the same general tendencies; for the romantic movement was already well under way when he wrote the The House of Night. The poem is overlong, lacks unity of tone and matter, and altogether is disappointingly crude; but it contains such lines as

  • so loud and sad it play’d
  • As though all music were to breathe its last,
  • I saw the infernal windows flaming red,
  • and
  • Trim the dull tapers, for I see no dawn,
  • which are a source of astonishment to one who has followed the course of American poetry up to this point. But unfortunately the romantic strain which promised so richly was soon lost.

    Freneau’s poems of the “glory of America” type, such as his Rising Glory of America, written in collaboration with H. H. Brackenridgewhen the two were seniors at Princeton, were inspired by a great vision and still retain a certain eloquence. His burlesques of American scenes and characters, such asSlender’s Journey, are less successful; but his satires in both quantity and variety surpassed all but McFingal in their day. “Poet of the American Revolution” is no misnomer, if the term is to include political events up to 1815. Freneau’s masters in satire are Dryden, Churchill, and “Peter Pindar”; and his tone ranges from burlesque to invective. The Political Balance and The British Prison Ship are the most powerful and original satires of their time. Theroyalist printers Rivington and Gaine were his chief targets during the last years of the Revolution. In his personal satires he uses the anapest, which he was the first to popularize in America. His later satires, usually in lyrical stanzas, were suggested by “Peter Pindar”; the phrase “Peter Pindar of America” gives the key to his contemporary reputation. That his finer work received no praise was to Freneau a source of discouragement and even of bitterness. His aspiration was lyrical; but he had fallen on evil days:

  • On these bleak climes by fortune thrown,
  • Where rigid reason reigns alone,
  • Where lovely fancy has no sway,
  • Nor magic forms about us play—
  • Nor nature takes her summer hue,
  • Tell me, what has the muse to do?
  • Freneau’s newspaper work, his political affiliations, and his business ventures operated unfavourably upon his lyrical poetry. Although his fervour was reawakened by the French Revolution and again by the War of 1812, almost all his best lyrics were written between 1775 and 1790. In the main these concern the American Indian, the smaller objects of nature, and the sea, and in subject at least are altogether original. The Indian Burying Ground is well known; The Indian Student, which curiously anticipates some phases of Wordsworth’s Ruth, and The Dying Indian, are scarcely less fine. His nature lyrics, such as The Wild Honeysuckle, The Caty-Did, and On the Sleep of Plants, are the first to give lyrical expression to American nature. Their simplicity and restraint suggest Collins and Gray, but they are not imitative, and it is probable that Freneau is more original in even the style of his lyrics than has generally been acknowledged. To a Man of Ninety would at once be lighted upon as an imitation of Wordsworth had it not actually anticipated the Lyrical Ballads. The elegiac lyric Eutaw Springs, which Scott pronounced the best thing of its kind in the language, may have been suggested by Collins, but is still strongly original. However this may be, Freneau seems to merit all that his latest editor claims for him as a pioneer in the lyric of the sea. On the Death of Captain Nicholas Biddle (1779) has much of Campbell’s spirit and power; The Paul Jones and Captain Barney’s Victory over the General Monk deserve more than the mere credit given to the pioneer, for they are intrinsically fine.

    There remains, then, out of Freneau’s voluminous product, a small body of work of permanent interest. The House of Night deserves remembrance, not only for its pioneer romanticism but also for passages of intrinsic beauty and power; and a score of his lyrics, while far from perfect, are fine enough to deserve a permanent place in our anthologies. What his slender but genuine talent might have produced under more favourable conditions, even a generation later, can only be surmised, but even as it is we have in Freneau the only American poet before Bryant who possessed both imaginative insight and felicity of style.

    A few general conclusions concerning early American poetry may be stated briefly. First, the sheer quantity of it is surprisingly large in proportion to the population. Again, it is not the product of a new civilization, but as a whole is the extremely sophisticated result of English literary traditions. In style at least it is highly imitative of English models, and in many instances it shows an immediate transmission of literary influences. Finally, in the average merit of its style, it is, at least in the eighteenth century, quite equal to all but the very best of its time in the mother country. Altogether, the first two centuries of American poetry prepared the soil for the truly native growth that was to come after 1812—a growth that was no sudden phenomenon but simply the inevitable result of the cumulative forces of two hundred years.