Philip Morin Freneau Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Philip Morin Freneau 1752-1832

(Also wrote under pseudonyms of Robert Slender and Hezekiah Salem, among others) American poet, journalist, and editor.

Known as “the Poet of the Revolution,” Freneau is considered one of the most important of the early American poets. His work exhibits elements of both neoclassicism and pre-Romanticism, but because much of its subject matter is so narrowly topical, its chief appeal is as a historical record of the politics of the American Revolution and the early days of the republic. After the war, Freneau served as editor of the democratic newspaper theNational Gazette, producing essays and poems that were admired by some and reviled by others as two distinct factions struggled to control the direction of the country's new government.

Biographical Information

Freneau was born in New York on January 2, 1752, to Pierre Fresneau and Agnes Watson Fresneau. The family, of Huguenot descent, was engaged in successful commercial enterprises and land investment. The eldest of four children, Freneau showed early promise as a scholar, studying both Latin and Greek and reading extensively at the family's estate in New Jersey. At sixteen he was admitted to Princeton University, where he was a roommate of future president James Madison and met Hugh Henry Brackenridge, with whom he collaborated on A Poem, on the Rising Glory of America (1772), their commencement address. Influenced by Princeton president John Witherspoon, Freneau studied classical and English literature and became convinced that America could and should develop its own literature independent of European influences.

Freneau taught school briefly after graduating and then traveled to Santa Cruz for two years, where he wrote poetry in praise of the natural beauty of his surroundings. He returned to the United States in 1778 and began writing both poetry and prose attacking the British and supporting the American cause. While serving on a privateer in 1780, Freneau was captured by the British and held briefly on a prison ship; then, suffering from starvation and illness, he was transferred to a British hospital ship. His experience solidified his anti-British feelings and inspired one of his most famous and vicious poems, The British Prison-Ship (1781).

After the war, Freneau returned to the sea while continuing to write humorous pieces and satirical poetry for American periodicals. In 1790 he married Eleanor Forman and the couple moved to Philadelphia, where Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson had offered Freneau a position as a government translator. In October of 1791 he established a new political journal, the National Gazette. Under Freneau's editorship, the journal attacked the Federalist policies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton and served as a counterbalance to the Federalist paper, the Gazette of the United States, published by Hamilton supporter John Fenno. The Federalists considered Freneau little more than a mouthpiece for Thomas Jefferson, and he so outraged Washington that the normally reserved president referred to him as “that rascal Freneau.”

Freneau returned to his family farm in New Jersey after the National Gazette ceased publication, but he continued to serve as writer and editor for the Jersey Chronicle and the Time-Piece and Literary Companion for the next several years. Financial considerations eventually forced him to return to the sea as a captain, and although he continued to write, his later verse was not well received. Interest in his poetry briefly revived during the War of 1812, but soon his popularity waned again, and he died in obscurity and poverty in 1832.

Major Works

Freneau's first published piece was the graduation poem he and Hugh Henry Brackenridge wrote together, A Poem, on the Rising Glory of America. Reflecting the idealism of its young authors, the poem praised America as a land where freedom, liberty, and equality would create an atmosphere in which the arts and sciences would flourish. In 1772, while completing postgraduate work at Princeton, Freneau published a collection of poems, The American Village, whose title piece was a response to Oliver Goldsmith's “The Deserted Village.” In 1775, while living in New York, Freneau published a series of poems satirizing the British, among them “General Gage's Soliloquy,” “General Gage's Confession,” and A Voyage to Boston. Freneau's 1776 visit to Santa Cruz resulted in one of his most famous poems, “The Beauties of Santa Cruz,” written in 1777 but not published until 1779. A romantic tribute to natural beauty, the poem represented a departure from the political satire he had been producing in New York.

Freneau's poem The British Prison-Ship, based on his capture by the British while serving on the crew of the brig Aurora, marked a turning point in the poet's life and career. His opposition to the British hardened into hatred, and the romantic idealism of his youth gave way to disillusionment and realism in his writing. Immediately after the war, in 1784 and 1785, Freneau produced several poems in an intensely personal style that many critics consider his masterpieces, among them “The Hurricane,” “The Vernal Ague,” “The Wild Honey Suckle,” and “The Indian Burying-Ground.” By 1786 Freneau had become known as the “Poet of the Revolution” and published The Poems of Philip Freneau, new and reprinted selections dealing with American themes and concerns. Two years later he produced The Miscellaneous Works of Philip Freneau, which include a number of his essays as well as poetry.

As editor of the National Gazette, Freneau turned his attention to criticizing the government of Washington and Adams: he opposed England's political and cultural dominance of America, he advocated friendship with France, and he railed against Alexander Hamilton and what he considered the monarchical leanings of the Federalists. Freneau's other prose writings include numerous essays for the Freeman's Journal and other periodicals, many written under the pseudonyms Robert Slender and Hezekiah Salem.

Critical Reception

Freneau's reputation as the “Poet of the Revolution” proved a mixed blessing. His poems and essays were considered of interest only as long as their subject matter remained in the national spotlight, and his work was quickly forgotten once independence was won and the struggle to establish a new government was resolved. In terms of style, scholars often position Freneau's poetry at the point of transition between neoclassicism and Romanticism, with some claiming that its chief value lies in its similarity to the work of later Romantic poets. Several critics have suggested, for instance, that Freneau's poetry about the sea anticipates the work of George Gordon, Lord Byron, and Herman Melville, while his poem “The House of Night” anticipates the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Gilbert L. Gigliotti insists, however, that critical assessments of such poems as “The Hurricane” as pre-Romantic and, therefore, superior to Freneau's other works, miss the fact that the poem reflects a very old classical tradition, the “ship of state” poem. Other critics, such as Joseph Harrington, have suggested that Freneau's work was outdated even during his lifetime because it was political rather than personal. Harrington quotes William Cullen Bryant, writing as early as 1818, claiming that Freneau was “a writer in verse of inferior note … whose pen seems to have been chiefly employed on political subjects.”

One of Freneau's most political poems, The British Prison Ship, has drawn a great deal of critical attention. Richard C. Vitzthum considers the events that inspired the poem a turning point in Freneau's life and career. According to Vitzthum, not only did Freneau's political philosophy change considerably—he went from a rather passive observer of the American Revolution to a rabid supporter of it—but his personal view of the world was also altered. The optimism and idealism that characterized his early work was replaced by disillusionment, even bitterness. Mary Weatherspoon Bowden (see further reading) has studied the many revisions of the poem between 1780 and 1809 and has called into question not only the critical consensus regarding the poem's meaning, but also the factual basis of the events that inspired the poem. Bowden has also commented on Freneau's prose writings, claiming that “too many of his essays are unfocused because they lack a singleness of purpose. This fault is, perhaps, one of enthusiasm—Freneau wants to comment on too many things in each essay.”

Freneau's most controversial writing was produced during his association with the National Gazette. Many of his political opponents criticized him for engaging in partisan politics while employed by the government as a State Department translator. The rival newspaper called Freneau “a spaniel” and “a fawning parasite,” but Samuel E. Forman, writing in 1902, insisted that Freneau and his newspaper did not deserve this “unsavory reputation.” According to Forman, “the fear and hatred that [National Gazette] won for itself arose from the ability with which it was edited. It was supported by the best talent of the age,” including Brackenridge, Madison, and Jefferson, who believed that Freneau's newspaper had prevented America from drifting toward monarchy in the early days of nationhood. One of Freneau's major concerns was the British cultural dominance over America, and he is considered the first American poet to reverse, even in a small way, this trend in literature. Jane Donahue Eberwein asserts that Sir Walter Scott borrowed a line of Freneau's for his 1808 poem “Marmion.” Despite this small victory, Eberwein claims that Freneau's best work was ignored, while his lighter verse proved popular with his readers. According to Eberwein, his unsophisticated audience encouraged Freneau's often “bombastic rhetoric, repetition, overstrained humor, and formless doggerel”; but Freneau “managed to find his own voice at times” and wrote “some of the finest, most timeless poems in American literature.”