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Life Sketch of Philip Freneau: Father of American Poetry

Writing life sketches and/or interviews that focus on well-known poets, philosophers, and others remains part of my writing toolkit.

Philip Freneau  - Engraving by Frederick Halpin.  This engraving appears to provide the only extant image of the poet.

Philip Freneau - Engraving by Frederick Halpin. This engraving appears to provide the only extant image of the poet.

Early Years and Schooling

Philip Freneau might be considered the fourth American poet chronologically, as he takes his place among such luminaries as Phillis Wheatley, Anne Bradstreet, and Edward Taylor. Wheatley was born in Senegal, and both Taylor and Bradstreet were born in England.

Philip Morin Freneau was born on January 2, 1752, in New York City to Pierre Freneau and Agnes Watson Freneau; his father was of Huguenot descent and his mother was Scottish. In addition to Philip, the couple had five other children. The Freneaus raised their son by Calvinist principles led by the Reverend William Tennent, Jr, a New Light evangelical leader of the Presbyterian church in Matawan, New Jersey.

Freneau began his formal education in the elementary school that was directed by Rev. Tennent. Continuing his education at the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton), Freneau once again was instructed by Tennent. While at college, Freneau became close friends with James Madison, who was elected president of the United States in 1809.

During his college years, Freneau developed a strong interest in politics as well as a deep affinity for writing poetry and prose; thus, he began writing political pamphlets as well as poetry. As a college student, he penned the History of the Prophet Jonah and was co-author with Hugh Brackenridge of the satire, Father Bombo's Pilgrimage to Mecca. Freneau graduated from Princeton in 1771.

After graduation from college, Freneau took a teaching position. Finding the teaching profession not to suit him, he began studying theology but found he also lacked interest in that endeavor. While continuing to write creatively his entire life, he also worked as a sea captain, a journalist, and a farmer.

Writing

By 1775, with the approaching Revolutionary war for independence from England, Freneau found his voice writing several pieces condemning England. He then journeyed to the Caribbean islands remaining there from 1776 to 1778, where he again found his penchant for writing about nature.

While in the Caribbean, Freneau wrote "The House of Night." American literary scholar, Professor Fred Lewis Pattee, hailed as the "first Professor of American Literature," a position he held at Pennsylvania State University from 1895 until 1928, has claimed that this Freneau poem was the "first distinctly Romantic note heard in America."

After retuning to the States, Freneau joined the New Jersey militia in 1778. While on a trip to the West Indies, Freneau along with the crew members of a revolution privateer endeavor were captured and held by the British on a prison ship for six weeks. This experience during which he almost died prompted Freneau to publish more anti-British pieces as the revolution proceeded and then for sometime afterward.

Freneau’s biting verse, The British Prison-Ship, appeared in 1781. The final dozen lines of that scathing poem sum up the atmosphere of emotion that reigned during that historical era:

Ah! traitors, lost to every sense of shame,
Unjust supporters of a tyrant's claim;
Foes to the rights of freedom and of men,
Flush'd with the blood of thousands you have slain,
To the just doom the righteous skies decree
We leave you, toiling still in cruelty,
Or on dark plans in future herds to meet,
Plans form'd in hell, and projects half complete:
The years approach that shall to ruin bring
Your lords, your chiefs, your miscreant of a king,
Whose murderous acts shall stamp his name accurs'd,
And his last triumphs more than damn the first.

Although Freneau had a penchant for Romanticism by nature, the times in which he lived influenced him to become political. His satires of the British during the revolutionary period earned him wide-spread recognition. It was during this time that his writing earned him the designation of "Poet of the American Revolution."

Poet of the Revolution

Freneau’s own remark about the period in which he lived possibly demonstrates much about the likelihood of his becoming a major figure in the literary world. He wrote, "An age employed in edging steel / Can no poetic rapture feel." Such a pessimistic evaluation surely affected the essentially optimistic poet.

Still, several of the most important poems of the "Father of American Poetry" remain widely available. Whether he is called the "Poet of the Revolution" or "The Father of American Poetry," Philip Freneau’s works have remained extant and continue to be read and studied.

Father of American Poetry

Despite his reputation for penning his many political and journalistic pieces, at heart, Philip Freneau remained a poet first, and he also remained deeply spiritual. He would have much preferred to focus solely on writing about the beauty of nature and the mystery of God and creation. But the turbulent period of history in which he lived influenced him to broaden his scope and to offer his talent for the important cause of independence and freedom.

The following excerpt from his musing regarding the nature of his times demonstrates his preference for concentration on poetry:

On these bleak climes by fortune thrown
Where rigid reason reigns alone,
Where lovely fancy has no sway,
Nor magic forms about us play—
Nor nature takes her summer hue,
Tell me, what has the muse to do?

Freneau’s writing talent allowed him to integrate his subject matter in a useful and dramatic way:

As a poet and editor, Freneau adhered to his democratic ideals. His popular poems, published in newspapers for the average reader, regularly celebrated American subjects. . . . Common American characters lived in "The Pilot of Hatteras," as well as in poems about quack doctors and bombastic evangelists.

Freneau commanded a natural and colloquial style appropriate to a genuine democracy, but he could also rise to refined neoclassic lyricism in often-anthologized works such as "The Wild Honeysuckle"(1786), which evokes a sweet-smelling native shrub. Not until the "American Renaissance" that began in the 1820s would American poetry surpass the heights that Freneau had scaled 40 years earlier.

On December 18, 1832, Philip Freneau died near Freehold, New Jersey, at age 80, less than one month shy of his 81st birthday; he is interred at Matawan, New Jersey. On his grave marker the following has been inscribed: "HEAVEN LIFTS ITS EVERLASTING PORTAL HIGH AND BIDS THE PURE IN HEART BEHOLD THEIR GOD."

Sources

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes

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