The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

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.

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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 general must “pay well the priest” and need not fear hell.

Gage, remembering that he stole sheep from the colonials, asks if theft with murder will seal his damnation. The friar quickly reminds him that although “some few Americans have bled,” it was Gage’s soldiers who killed them. Brushing aside Gage’s concern that his soldiers murdered by his command, the friar responds,

Let each man answer for his proper deed,From sins of murder I pronounce you freed,And this same reasoning will your honour keepFrom imputations of purloining sheep:

Then the friar warns Gage to cut short his transgressions or “the supper will be cold.”

In the poem’s last three speeches, Gage regrets he has earned purgatory by establishing martial law, which pitilessly imprisoned American captives, and that he had written an invective-filled letter to American general George Washington (which, historically, rejected Washington’s written remonstrance about Gage’s cruel treatment of American officers). Dismissing Gage’s fears as groundless, the friar offers to take the blame for the general’s proclamation proscribing American patriots and all Continental Congress members as traitors, and for Gage’s letter to Washington. Father Francis avers that fellow “private Papists” will support such acts and consoles Gage with his final words: “Your sins in Lethe shall be swallowed up,/ I’ll clear you, if you please, before we sup.” In the poem’s last speech, the still guilt-ridden Gage rejects the friar’s easy absolution for his sins and feels condemned for his prideful, unjust acts against the American cause.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

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 murderer spreading “devastation thro’ a guiltless land.” Later, when the heartless confinement of captives is cited, biblical references are used again, when Gage is equated with Judas tempted by the devil, consigned to purgatory, but not yet punished by a heaven “to mercy swift, to vengeance slow?” Gage describes himself as “ a wretched pilgrim” whose sins could not be cleansed even by penance in Palestine tearfully washing Christ’s footsteps, or by washing his hands like the self-condemned Roman prelate Pontius Pilate. Like Judas, he avows he will hang himself to gain peace.

The rhythm of the iambic pentameter relentlessly conveys the growing desperation of Gage as he continually rejects the friar’s oily promises of absolution and concludes his sins cannot be purged. The friar’s sophistic reasoning is accented when he slyly absolves the general and minimizes his deed by placing responsibility for Gage’s sins on others, suggesting that money will buy salvation and affirming that fellow Catholics will support his methods. Additionally, the rhyming couplets produce an effect of comically emphasizing the cleric’s glibly false reasoning and the satirical observation of Gage disparate from his historical counterpart. Comic detachment is created in the reader, removing any sympathy for either character.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 151

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.

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