The poem needs to be understood from the historical perspective of its author. Although Freneau’s active support of the patriot cause was initially limited to his writing, he knew of events ranging from the siege of Boston and the arrival of British troops to Gage’s shameful treatment of Washington’s officers, the Battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill, and more. In 1778 Freneau joined the New Jersey militia and served on blockade runners until temporarily imprisoned on a British prison ship.
After his 1768 graduation from Princeton and having given up a career in divinity and teaching, American-born Freneau published in 1775 a series of poems revealing both his commitment to the American cause against Great Britain and his satirical skill. “American Liberty,” later published as “The Present Situation of Affairs in North America,” reviewed the background of the colonies and the beginning Revolution. Freneau praised General Washington and was contemptful of Tories, General Gage, Catholic Canada, and British king George III. Also in 1775 Freneau published “A Voyage to Boston,” which included ridicule of Gage and other British generals in Boston.
After Gage’s recall to England, the poet published “General Gage’s Soliloquy,” in which the title character doubts the future success of the British cause, and “General Gage’s Confession.” Both, written in heroic couplets, are burlesques of the British leader in Boston. The impetus of the latter poem was to satirize and denigrate British power, which Freneau saw as symbolized by Gage. It reflected the poet’s anti-British sentiment, as many of his patriotic poems did. That Gage confesses to a mendacious friar, indicates an added satire of Catholicism probably sparked by Church support of the Loyalist cause and the 1774 Quebec Act, which officially established the Catholic Church there, thus raising fears of an established church in the colonies.
Although known during his lifetime and a century later as a political propagandist and a satirist of Federalist presidents George Washington and John Adams, Freneau became recognized as an accomplished essayist and a gifted, versatile poet. He experimented with forms, favoring the heroic couplet among others; and is considered by some critics the first true poet born on the American continent who could be called the father of American poetry. Freneau authentically led the way by turning from England and introducing a new standard of literary art.
The issue of the poem is the injustice and cruelty of British power and the false rationale of clerical powers supporting the British cause. The poem became an integral part of the poet’s oeuvre treating the American cause. “General Gage’s Confession” is significant in that it reflects the early and lasting concern of America’s first native poet with native themes and introduces readers to not only a significant aspect of early American history and literary satire, but also a highly deserving American poet not adequately known.
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