| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Philip Morin Freneau, the most versatile and vitriolic of the
patriot poets, was born in New York, the son of Pierre Fresneau, a tradesman,
and Agnes Watson. His father’s Huguenot (French Protestant) faith and his
mother’s Presbyterianism influenced Philip to enroll at the College at Nassau
(Princeton), the bastion of New Light Christianity in America. Freneau joined
the American Whig Society, the more libertarian of the college’s two student
clubs. There he taught himself to be a poet, mastering the techniques of satire
in the paper wars against the other club, the Cliosophical Society, and the
devices of polite literature in verse prepared for the commencement exercises.
With fellow Whigs James Madison and Hugh Henry Brackenridge, he composed a
farcical romance, Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca, a work some
scholars have been tempted to designate the first American novel. Of more
lasting consequence were “The Power of Fancy,” a personal testament to his
devotion to imagination, and his commencement poem, a collaboration with
Brackenridge, A Poem on the Rising Glory of America, which explored the
myth of the westward course of empire and arts from the Old World to the New.
Freneau graduated in
1771 when the American market for literature was so undeveloped that no one
could make a living from writing. Consequently, he conducted his career as a
man of letters as an adjunct to other occupations—schoolmaster, captain of a
merchant vessel, government bureaucrat, farmer, and newspaper editor. He
advanced his literary reputation by substituting productivity and topicality
for exquisiteness and finish in his work. Immersing himself in the print
culture (the world of magazines, newspapers, and cheap books then coming into
being)—Freneau turned his back on the older belletristic world of private clubs
and salons. Every product of his adult pen found its way into print, and every
issue of the day prompted him to write.
Freneau won an
audience for his poetry in 1775 with a series of verse satires of British
officials and Tories, of which “A Political Litany,” has proved the most
enduring. Having made himself anathema to the New York Tories, the poet
embarked for the West Indies, where he lived for two years until joining the
colonial forces as a blockade runner. In 1780 he was captured and incarcerated
on a British prison vessel, an experience he memorialized bitterly in The
Prison Ship. He attached himself to the Freeman’s Journal in
Philadelphia, and lambasted the British and the Tories with a fusillade of
verse. The patriotic zeal and sardonic humor of these pieces won Freneau his
reputation as “The Poet of the Revolution.”
Despite his fame as a
political poet, Freneau never restricted his literary concerns to affairs of
state—not even when serving as the chief propagandist for Jeffersonian
democracy as editor of the National Gazette (1790–1793). An encyclopedic
curiosity led him to inquire into natural philosophy, speculative theology,
history, aesthetics, and social manners. The quality of his work in these areas
varies. As a poet of nature Freneau has earned lasting fame, his lyric on “The
Wild Honey Suckle” being generally reckoned the inaugural poem in the romantic
tradition furthered by William Cullen Bryant and the Transcendentalists.
Freneau was less successful, though no less serious, as a theological poet. His
susceptibility to ingenious theological speculation may be seen in the change
of his beliefs from decade to decade. He espoused at various times deism,
Swedenborgianism, and neo-Epicurianism.
as a poet is evident in his work in creating a language and a subject matter
adjusted to the increasingly democratic ideology of newspapers and magazines.
He was America’s first public poet in the popular mold.
David S. Shields|
In the Heath Anthology
A Political Litany
The Wild Honey Suckle
The Indian Burying Ground
To Sir Toby
The Country Printer
On the Causes of Political Degeneracy
On the Universality and Other Attributes of the God of Nature
On Observing a Large Red Streak Apple
The Power of Fancy
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Philip Freneau (1752-1832): A Brief Literary Biography
A good overview of Freneau's life and the major themes in his poetry.
A fairly comprehensive biography and links to several poems available online.
Freneau, Philip [Morin]
A biography annotated with online references.
Philip Freneau: The Indian Burying Ground
A text of Freneau's poem, with a brief introduction.
William D. Andrews, "Philip Freneau and Frances Hopkinson," American Literature, 1764-1789, The Revolutionary Years, 1977
P. Marsh, The Works of Philip Freneau: A Critical Study, 1968
R. Vitzthum, Land and Sea: The Lyric Poetry of Philip Freneau, 1978
Eric Wertheimer, Imagined Empires: Incas, Aztecs, and the New World of American Literature, 1771-1876, 1999