Explain the contrast of overwhelming powers of nature with the feeble efforts of man, which anticipated later romantic doctrines, in the poems of Phillip Freneau.

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Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Although Phillip Freneau (1752-1832) arguably achieved his greatest fame as the "Poet of the American Revolution," having been a soldier and a privateer (and a prisoner of the British on a prison ship), his verse beginning in the mid-1780s clearly shows a transition to themes aligned with romanticism--the power of nature over man; an intense interest in natural elements; a sense of melancholy and elegiac mood; the idealization of rural life; a God present in nature but not intimately involved in mankind.

"Reflections on Constitution, or Frame of Nature" (1815), for example, is an extended description of Freneau's deist belief system, one in which the universe moves as God (also, Nature) intended and mankind is simply one piece of a larger mechanism:

Beyond what mind or thought conceives,/Our efforts it in darkness leaves; Existing in the eternal scheme,/Vast, undivided, and supreme.

Deism, the belief that God created the universe and set it in motion to run on its own (that is, without God's intervention), is a holdover from the 18thC. but evolved very naturally into the Nature-centered religious views of the Romantics.  In these lines, Freneau argues that mankind has little or no impact on the workings of the universe.  Like many Romantics to come, Freneau refers to both God and Nature as creators of "the GREAT SUPREME," a very Romantic conflation of a biblical God and the power of Nature.  

One Freneau's strongest statements on the futility of mankind's struggles to achieve greatness comes in "Reflections on the Mutability of Things--1798" (written in 1798, published in 1815):

The time is approaching . . . When the pageant that glitter'd for many a day,/On the stream of oblivion will float.

The view that "the stream of oblivion" swallows up all of man's works, of course, becomes more common in his later poems, but this expresses Freneau's firm belief that God/Nature (in the form of time), not man, forms the framework of the universe and that it is the universe that endures.  In fact, the sentiment is eerily reminiscent of Percy Bysshe Shelley's sonnet "Ozymandias," written in 1817.

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