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