The fact that Freneau’s collected poetic works, at least in a definitive edition, were not published until over a hundred years after he had stirred the American conscience heightens the irony of the title of the best biography of the poet, That Rascal Freneau: A Study in Literary Failure (1941). The phrase comes from George Washington, who more than anyone had occasion to be grateful to Freneau, not only for the several laudatory poems addressed to him but also for lifting soldier morale during the nadir of the Revolution. Freneau’s political poetry served the same purpose as Paine’s incendiary essays, and was perhaps more effective.
These facts alone would make Freneau interesting historically, but his poetry of nature, of American life and culture, add an important dimension to his memory. Most literary historians and critics consider Freneau our first outstanding poet, a liberal in form as well as content. He dared to introduce native themes and idioms into poetry at a time when other writers remained slavishly Anglophile. While a student at Princeton he wrote a poem in collaboration with Hugh Henry Brackenridge, “A Poem on the Rising Glory of America,” a cue to later cleverly designed propagandist pieces, written first in praise of British imperialism and then revised to express sharp denunciation of British usurpation. Significantly, the account that the poem was received at commencement, 1771, “with great applause,” mentions only Brackenridge’s name. In blank verse and dramatic dialogue, the work traces the history of America as the story of freedom-seeking men, establishing on this Eden-like continent, prophetically, a haven for all the oppressed:
And when a train of rolling years arepast,(So sung the exiled seer in Patmos isle)A new Jerusalem, sent down fromheaven,Shall grace our happy earth,—perhapsthis land,and such America at last shall haveWhen ages yet to come, have run theirround,and future years of bliss alone remain.
From this patriotic writing Freneau turned to the often-quoted “The American Village,” a poem in praise of this land in contrast to “The Deserted Village” of a decadent England. Though written in heroic couplets, the sentiments expressed, the names, and the idiom are American.
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