Table of Contents
1 Freneau’s Self-Assessment
2 Freneau’s Readers
3 “Advice to Authors” and “To an Author”
4 Freneau’s Contemporary American Competitors
4.1 Timothy Dwight
4.2 Joel Barlow
4.3 William Cullan Bryant
4.4 Anne Bradstreet
5 Freneau’s Attitude Towards British Poets
6.1 Reference to the Bible
7 The Last Poems: A Reflection on His Life
9 Works Cited
Philip Freneau was one of the most discussed poets of the late eighteenth century. On one hand he was celebrated as the “Poet of the American Revolution” (Eberwein 191) or the “Father of American Poetry” (Stauffer 52), a journalist of influence, a patriot and skilful writer, on the other hand he was forgotten for a long time. How did Philip Freneau see himself? What were his targets and how did he try to reach them?
This paper examines Freneau’s look on his role as an author on his poetry and plans. What kind of influences affected or promoted his career? Regarding his own poems “To an Author”, “The City Poet” and “To a New England Poet” his description of an author’s life – and therefore his life – will become apparent.
Furthermore, a closer look on his contemporaries, the Connecticut Wits, especially Dwight, Barlow and Bryant will display how independent and original Freneau’s writing was, and what kind of relationships he had towards these American authors.
At the same time his relationship towards British poets is interesting: He thought he rejected most of their writing; but was he really not influenced by them at all? Could it be that he sometimes even copied parts of their work?
After having a short look on other intertextual influences like Greek mythology, verses from the Bible and Classic forms this paper will look retrospective on his life and his attitude towards himself. Did Freneau manage to reach his goals or did he lose sight of it?
1 Freneau’s Self-Assessment
Unfortunately, huge explanations of Freneau himself, how he sees himself as a writer do not exist. Moreover, “biographers have had to infer Freneau’s thoughts, feelings, and activities during long periods almost solely from his published writing” (Vitzthum 3) and consider him „historically rather than aesthetically important“ (3). To Freneau it was important “to instruct his readers in democratic, humanitarian attitudes” (Eberwein 190). For he was raised on a farm in Monmouth with a view over the sea, “he developed a lifelong affection for rural life and for the ocean” (190).
The 17th century, time of the Puritans in America, was, according to Pearce (cf. 198), a time that had the dogma, not to have a dogma. Nevertheless, Pearce states, there had to be “a dogma, a democratic dogma” (198) for democratic readers. Philip Freneau agreed on that. He, as a euphoric revolutionist, “hoped to create a poetry informed by such a dogma” (198). To him, this intention seemed easy and logical: He thought of writing about things as he saw them. The eighteenth century and its theory of the “Fancy” supported Freneau’s idea. “Fancy” meant fantasy and creativity, talent and romantic poetry and was mainly influenced by the poet’s idea “to transform the world he knows into the better one which all men should, and inevitably would, come to know” (198). Believing in this “Fancy”, Freneau wrote poems like “The Beauties of Santa Cruz” on an exotic island; “The Wild Honeysuckle” which contains natural romanticism; or “The Indian Burying Ground”, a poem that glorifies the rites and traditions of the natural people, the American Indians. These poems, that all showed parts of his utopian America, regarding his favourite topics “death”, “nature”, “foreign places” and “nature’s children” “are the sort that he wanted most to write” (198). Unfortunately, these poems are said to be powerless, for Freneau was “at once too much an improviser and too much a traditionalist” (198f).
Although his predecessors, the Puritans, as well as Timothy Dwight and his fellows, the Connecticut Wits, still merely rhymed for the reason of utility, for mnemotechnics and learning, Freneau
believed that art should be valued even if it were not utilitarian. He was a patriot, but he enjoyed the advantages of other lands. He was a man who prided himself on his occupation as sea captain, but he also wrote of the beauties of a rural retreat. He often altered his style and philosophy as he encountered new styles and new philosophies, but his values changed little from those of his college years (Bowden 74).
Freneau often hoped to bring literary poetry forward. Therefore, for example, he contributed to The Time-Piece, a journal, which was intended to be “purely literary . . . but rapidly grew political” (Eberwein 192).
His lovely images, mild exoticism and skilful language were not seen during the Revolution, so he turned his writing towards political, revolutionary writing, trying to find an audience. Later, he came back to fanciful poetry “in order to develop a religion of nature appropriate to the needs of democratic America” (Pearce 199). In contrast to the unsuccessful romantic poetry, his politic poetry was immediately successful. “The Rising Glory of America” for example, a poem he wrote, shortly after college with his fellow student Brackenridge also creates the images of a utopian, paradisiacal America, freed from quarrels, problems and anti-democratic European shackles (cf. 199).
His anti-British attitude grew, and more and more he believed in the opportunities that America, which was the country of a new chance, could give him and those who started a living there. Moreover, Freneau developed the idea to increase his reputation, his influence and importance via writing poetry (cf. 199f). In the time of the Revolution he thought it necessary to defend his new world and fight the attacks of aggressors with his pen. At the same time he tried to erect a monument for those who saved America.
This political way of writing was his calling for the outer circumstances made him “The Poet of the American Revolution” (cf. Eberwein 191). Originally, Freneau would have preferred to stick to his concept of romantic Fancy, but for he felt urged to contribute to the Revolution “he gave himself over wholly to being the public’s poet-journalist” (Pearce 200).
2 Freneau’s Readers
“[T]here is no way of telling what [Freneau] might have been – only what he was: first a poet in the ‘pre-romantic’ vein; then a poet of public exhortation and invective – in both cases a poet acting on the presumption that he had an audience” (Pearce 200). Although Philip Freneau gained fame as a journalist, writing for the most important newspapers of his time – he published the National Gazette, edited the Jersey Chronicle, and worked for the Daily Advertiser etc. – and even writing for Thomas Jefferson himself, he always had to fight for his poetry to be read. Especially after the war, he was isolated due to his political confessions for Jefferson, but still stuck by them. His main aim was “being a democratic poet in a society of democratic readers: reasonable men all” (201f), but it was not easy to find those. “[Freneau] could find no place for himself in a world he had helped make” (202).
Therefore, he lost all his audience and also the reputation he had gained in the years before 1788. Not only did America not consider him to be an important poet anymore, but also his fellow countrymen completely forgot about his talent and the achieving of his successful times.
After Thomas Jefferson’s model, Freneau believed in the ideal of an agrarian America, consisting of small units of people who have close and intensive relationships towards each other. He welcomed farm life and traditional values, but also hoped for a highly educated and literary interested Americans – his ideal readers. For he did not meat the needs of the Americans of his time, but tried to change them, so they could enjoy his poetry, he failed. “He was sure, at least in his earlier years that a democratic culture would bring forth democratic literature” (Pearce 202).
Unfortunately, “Common Readers, in short, had their Common Poets” (204). For common people were formed by institutions and did only regard those poets who were popular and streamlined and not those who told the truth or made them think, poets like Freneau were in a dilemma. Freneau again and again tried to reach the individual man, but was confronted mainly with institutionalized, depersonalized and not very sophisticated characters. His wish to create a “genuinely popular national poetry” (204) had to fail, since he and his poetry were not easy and pleasant to all, and especially not offending no one (cf. 204). He could have worked with publishers to reach new readers, but again, publishers only published those poets who would be profitable (cf. 204).
3 “Advice to Authors” and “To an Author”
In “Advice to Authors” he wrote: “If fortune seems absolutely determined to starve you, and you can by no means whatever make your works sell; to keep up as much as in you lies, the expiring dignity of authorship, do not take to drinking, gambling or bridge-building as some have done, thereby bringing the trade of authorship into disrepute; but retire to some uninhabited island or desert, and there, at your leisure, end your life with decency” (Bowden 54). These desperate lines show how humiliating the state of being an unread poet was to Freneau. Although he never took his own advice to leave for good and die dignified – he finally got lost in a blizzard and froze to death on a field –, one can imagine that he often condemned his situation and himself. Also, written in 1786, “On the Folly of Writing Poetry”[i] contains “the lesson he had learned, again and again, in his own years of frustrated authorship. ‘Authors,’ he says, ‘(such I mean as are not possessed of fortunes) are at present considered as the dregs of the community: their prospects are truly humiliating’” (Axelrad 173).
[i] (also known as “The Epistle to Sylvius: (On the folly of writing Poetry)” (1795), and as “The Poetaster” (1786), and as “To Sylvius: On the Folly of Writing Poetry” (1809)) (cf. Leary That Rascal 437)