As an undergraduate poet, Freneau imitated the standard British poets; in his Poems (1786), he conveniently dated many of his compositions, so one can see his progression of interest from John Dryden and Alexander Pope to John Milton as models in both subject matter and technique. One of his best early lyrics, “The Power of Fancy” (dated 1770), suggests a conscious imitation of Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” in its use of tetrametrical couplets, variously iambic and trochaic, although Joseph Warton’s poem of the same title, written in 1746, may well have been an inspiration.
“The Power of Fancy” is a long poem for a beginning poet, though its 154 lines hardly exceed the limitation Edgar Allan Poe would impose in his theory of verse composition, for it can, with ease, be read at a single sitting. The poem is noteworthy for its fusion of the elements of the classical (in form and allusions) with those of the Romantic writers, whose philosophy and technique were not yet enunciated. There is praise for fancy as a transforming force; there is the introduction of dreaming as a device; there is the use of the distant and hence exotic; and there is a pervasive mood of melancholy. Furthermore, Freneau offers in this poem an early glimpse of his slowly developing Deist (or Unitarian) tendencies, which are perhaps most clearly stated in his poem “On the Uniformity and Perfection of Nature,” one of his last. None of his other early poems has similar interest or quality.
In “The American Village,” Freneau imitates the British poet Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” (which had been published two years earlier), but whereas Goldsmith’s poem is melancholy, Freneau’s is optimistic and confident of the future of America and speaks of “this land with rising pomp divine” and “its own splendor.” Thus, by 1772 Freneau was expressing his regional chauvinism; he was already displaying his special attachment to his American homeland.
Before long, Freneau’s poems expressing simple pride and faith in the American colonies gave way to somewhat bellicose political verse, to statements of the theme that the North Americans valued the “godlike glory to be free” (a phrase in his “American Liberty”). By 1778, Freneau was writing the verse that earned for him the title “poet of the American Revolution”: “American Independence” likened King George III to Cain, Nero, and Herod. In couplets that must have reminded some readers of the work of Thomas Gray, Freneau wrote: “Full many a corpse lies rotting on the plain,/ That ne’er shall see its little brood again.” Here the juxtaposition of images of the battlefront campaigns and the violated domestic tranquillity shows Freneau at his most brilliant achievement as a patriotic and propagandistic poet.
The poet was somewhat ambivalent about engaging in the military conflict himself, and, in his “The Beauties of Santa Cruz,” written during his privateering period, he both urged his fellow colonials to leave “the bloody plains and iron glooms” for “the climes which youthful Eden saw” and praised those who remained to “repel the tyrant who thy peace invades.” Similarly, within the poem he vacillates between viewing the island of Santa Cruz as an edenic refuge and seeing it as a source of evil—slavery, avarice, indolence, and the annihilation of the native inhabitants.
From 1780 to 1790 Freneau produced some of his most commendable and lasting verse, both political and lyric. “The British Prison Ship,” occasioned by the poet’s capture and imprisonment in New York Harbor aboard the British ships Scorpion and Hunter, has the immediacy of a personal cri de coeur yet also offers detailed and reliable eyewitness evidence of the maltreatment of his fellow prisoners. It closes with a rousing appeal for revenge. No less rousing are the poems that memorialize the victory of John Paul Jones over the British warship Seraphis (September 23, 1779) and to the memory of those who fell in the action of September 8, 1781, under General Greene in South Carolina. In the first poem are the lines,
Go on, great man, to daunt the foe,And bid the haughty Britons knowThey to our thirteen stars shall bend.
The second poem praises the “conquering genius,” General Greene, and commends to “A brighter sunshine of their own” the “patriot band” who fought with him.
“The House of Night,” written while Freneau was in the West Indies, was initially published in 1779 in seventy-three six-line iambic pentameter stanzas; it was subsequently expanded to 136 stanzas (816 lines). In an “Advertisement” (an authorial statement), Freneau indicates that the poem was founded upon Scripture (“the last enemy that shall be conquered is death”); he sets the poem at midnight in a solitary place that was once “beautiful and joyous”—perfectly suited for “the death of Death.” The poem concludes, he notes, “with a few reflexions on the impropriety of a too great attachment to the present life.” Throughout his life, Freneau toyed with the poem, adding lines and removing stanzas until, in its 1786 version, the death of Death was totally expunged. This remarkable composition was the first significant American poem to be written on the abstraction Death. It anticipates Poe in its pervasive Romanticism, its tone and atmosphere, though it is also in a direct line of descent from the “graveyard poets” of Britain of the immediately preceding years.
Several “reform” poems were written in the same decade; of them, “To Sir Toby,” which describes and condemns the practices of slave owners in Jamaica, is a good example. “If there exists a hell,” Freneau opens, “Sir Toby’s slaves enjoy that portion here.” Branding, whipping, chaining, imprisonment, and starvation—all the indignities and punishments inflicted upon the “black herd” are listed and condemned. “On the...
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