The Wild Honey Suckle

by Philip Freneau

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Although “The Wild Honey Suckle” is now the most frequently reprinted and quoted of Freneau’s poems, it was seldom reprinted in the poet’s lifetime. The consensus both in the United States and abroad is that this is the poet’s best lyric and is perhaps his most accomplished verse composition. It is a comparatively short poem: It has only four six-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter arranged in the quite traditional rhyme scheme ababcc. The first two stanzas sing of the joys of growing in the country (“this silent, dull retreat”), where no careless bypasser will threaten the flower’s gentle existence, its comeliness in the gentle shade of the woods. The poet stresses that this secluded location is “Nature’s” design: The shade is to guard the plant, which is to “shun the vulgar eye”; that is, it is personified and admonished to assume an attitude of modesty despite its beauty.

The third stanza develops the image introduced in the penultimate line of the second stanza, that “quietly the summer goes.” That is, an analogy is proposed between the life and death of the honeysuckle and the life and death of humankind; in both, one can see existence “declining to repose” (death). As if to place the death of the individual flower in perspective, Freneau suggests that even the flowers that bloomed in the Garden of Eden—which were no more beautiful than the native flower of the North American countryside—were killed off by the “[u]npitying frosts” of autumn. Of Eden’s flowers there is no vestige; of the wild honeysuckle, also, there will be no trace.

The concluding stanza offers the traditional philosophical observation, or resolution of the situation presented in the preceding stanzas. It notes that the flower had its origins in morning suns and evening dews, developing from a pre-Edenic void. It will have its death knell from the same natural moisture and light—the ultimate paradox of life. Further, to place the life span of flower or person in perspective, the poet concludes with admirable logic that because the flower came from nothing, it can have lost nothing at death. It (and humankind) moves only from void to void, and “[t]he space between is but an hour”—the twinkling of an eye of “[t]he frail duration of a flower.”

Decay and death are immutable and universal, are irreversible, yet the disappearance of a thing of beauty, whether a wild honeysuckle or a beautiful young woman, is a melancholy phenomenon. In fact, the tone of the entire poem is one of melancholy; the use of personification (which is used in even the opening apostrophe, “Fair flower,” and continues unabated throughout the poem) makes the analogy between flower and individual inescapable. The poet goes further, however, and makes the particular universal: The wild honeysuckle appropriately represents all the unseen, unacknowledged things of beauty that have ever existed and have died.

The poem has more than the traditional sense of the loss of beauty to recommend it, however. It has a serenity, a sense of awe and loss that is rare, and it combines native subject matter with the poet’s personal philosophy of the transience of all human experiences without being circumscribed by the language of the English pre-Romantics such as William Collins and Thomas Gray and the great Scottish poet Robert Burns.

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