The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Philip Freneau’s General Gage’s Confession is a dialogue in heroic couplets that reveals British general and royal governor of Boston Thomas Gage seeking absolution from a Catholic friar for his sins against the cause of American independence. The poet employs his poem to ridicule Gage, who was recalled to England in 1775 for ineptitude. The arrogant Gage was responsible during his term of office for igniting the Boston Tea Party and for sending of British troops to Lexington, who fired upon American militiamen and initiated the Revolutionary War. The poem lampoons Gage as the feckless instigator of all the above troubles.

The poem’s subtitle is Being the Substance of His Excellency’s Last Conference with His Ghostly Father, Father Francis. In the first of thirteen speeches between Gage and the friar, the British general relishes his recall to England but admits to Father Francis a “burden’d conscience.” The friar assures him that his “deepest sins may all be purged away” through confession. In the next six exchanges of dialogue Gage admits that “faultless” young America never deserved his hate and asks if obeying his monarch’s wishes was a sin. After Father Francis calmly recounts some of Gage’s murderous acts against American patriots, he promises that: “A dozen masses shall discharge you clean;/ Small pains in purgatory you’ll endure,/ And hell, you know, is only for the poor.” For such absolution the...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Freneau’s poem of 151 lines of rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter is a dialogue between two persons: the remorseful questioner Gage, and his confessor, from whom Gage seeks answers. Within the question-and-answer framework, thirteen speeches, ranging from two to twenty lines, disclose a British officer in a supplicator role seeking exculpation of sins from the authority figure of a priest. The point of view is satirical, for contemporary readers knew that the obstinate and prideful General Gage never voiced any misgivings for his actions.

In the first exchange of dialogue, Freneau uses nature images of sailing, wind, and sea to reveal the conscience-stricken Gage being blown home from “friendless shores” while describing him in classical and biblical terms as a “second Nero” and “another Cain.” The poet then puts flowery imagery in the friar’s mouth, comparing Gage to “yon bright star” that “faints not” when its rays are blunted by “pestering clouds.” The friar refers to Gage in slaughterhouse imagery as a “master butcher”; the friar also employs imagistic religious vocabulary (“purgatory,” “heaven,” “hell”) when offering assurance that a “dozen masses” will save Gage from hell. Freneau trained for the ministry at Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) and was no stranger to religious terminology.

Later Freneau describes the general in the concrete imagery of a gluttonous sheep-stealer and...

(The entire section is 426 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Andrews, William D. “Philip Freneau and Francis Hopkinson.” In American Literature, 1764-1789: The Revolutionary Years, edited by Everett Emerson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977.

Elliott, Emory. “Philip Freneau: Poetry of Social Commitment.” In Revolutionary Writers: Literature and Authority in the New Republic, 1725-1810. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Leary, Lewis. “Philip Freneau.” In Major Writers of Early American Literature, edited by Everett Emerson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. “Antecedents: The Case of Freneau.” In The Continuity of American Poetry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961.

Ronnick, Michele Valerie. “A Note on the Text of Philip Freneau’s ’Columbus to Ferdinand’: From Plato to Seneca.” Early American Literature 29, no. 1 (1994): 81.

Tichi, Cecelia. New World, New Earth: Environmental Reform in American Literature from the Puritans Through Whitman. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

Wertheimer, Eric. “Commencement Ceremonies: History and Identity in ’The Rising Glory of America,’ 1771 and 1786.” Early American Literature 29, no. 1 (1994): 35.