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Philip Freneau's "On a Honey Bee, Drinking From a Glass of Wine, and Drowned Therein"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Philip Freneau

Introduction and Excerpt from "On a Honey Bee, Drinking from a Glass of Wine, and Drowned Therein"

In Philip Freneau's "On a Honey Bee, Drinking from a Glass of Wine, and Drowned Therein," the speaker is observing a honey bee who seems to have come to partake of the wine presently being enjoyed by the speaker and several of his companions. The speaker speculates about the oddity of a honey bee coming to drink wine instead of imbibing from the bodies of water all of nature provides the little creature.

Excerpt from "On a Honey Bee, Drinking from a Glass of Wine, and Drowned Therein"

Thou, born to sip the lake or spring,
Or quaff the waters of the stream,
Why hither come, on vagrant wing?
Does Bacchus tempting seem,—
Did he for you this glass prepare?
Will I admit you to a share? . . .

To read the entire poem, please visit "On a Honey Bee Drinking from a Glass of Wine and Drowned Therein."

Reading of "On a Honey Bee . . . "

Commentary

Observing a bee buzzing his glass of wine, the speaker muses on the little critter's motives for forsaking its natural habitat to carouse with wine bibbing humans.

Stanza 1: A Wine Bibbing Bee

The speaker inquisitively addresses a little honey bee, curious to ascertain why a bee would be showing interest in wine. The bee has all of natures lakes, springs, and other streams from which to acquire it liquid sustenance. Yet here it is, seemingly being tempted by "Bacchus." The speaker wonders if the bee has just been led astray by a "vagrant wing," or if Bacchus himself has intended that the speaker's glass of wine was poured for the little creature.

The allusion to Bacchus is quite appropriate because the Roman god had been designated the god of grapes thus wine. He is the Roman version of the Greek god Dionysus, who also heads the wine bibbing crowd along other merrymaking.

Stanza 2: The Speculative Inquiry Continues

The speaker continues his inquiry of the bee, asking if he had had to endure "storms" or if he had been bedeviled by bullying "foes." Perhaps "wasps" or "king-birds" had given him grief. Maybe wars has caused him discomfort or the kinds of work he had to endure.

On the other hand, perhaps the little honey bee just made a wrong turn somewhere and now wound up here in the odd place. The speaker then informs the bee that he has found a fine place to land, referring the rim of the glass of wine as "the margin of this lake."

Stanza 3: A Welcome Guest

Whatever and however the visitor wound up on the speaker's wine glass, the speaker offers the little critter a hearty "welcome." The speaker maintains that not only his glass but all present company welcome him. The speaker then allows the bee to share in the euphoria that wine brings to the human beings: allowing "the cloud of trouble" to fade, causing "all care" to pass from the mind for a time. The speaker tells the bee that this special liquid "never fails to please." The speaker then imparts the knowledge, "the griefs of men or bee," may be washed away by wine bibbing.

Stanza 4: Flying off on Happier Wings

The speaker abandons his speculative mood, admitting he and his fellows cannot ultimately fathom how or why the bee has joined them, and he and his companions know the little creature will never tell them of the purpose of his journey to visit them. They would all be glad to see the little guy take some wine and then go off fortified with the cheer that wine gives them. The speaker speculates that the bee would fly off on "lighter wings" for having quaffed a sip of the red liquid. The little creature could be in shape to avoid any foe who tried to bully him.

Stanza 5: An Allusive Warning

The speaker then admonishes the bee not to be too greedy as he imbibes the colorful, inspiring liquid. He supports his command by affirming that bees of a larger statue than the little honey bee have been known the "sink" in this liquid; he then refers to men a "full six feet high" having been overcome by the charms of this intoxicating beverage.

The speaker then alludes to the biblical passage in Exodus 15:4 (King James Version): "Pharaoh's chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea: his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red sea." The clever speaker likens the Red Sea to the red of the wine in the wine glass. If the bee becomes overzealous in his pursuit of the wine's favors, he might end up perishing like the Egyptians who scurried after Moses and his group after the Red Sea closed back up following its parting by the great saint.

Stanza 6: Crossing the River Styx

Nevertheless, the speaker allows the bee to decide how he wishes to proceed, telling the little guy to "enjoy" "without fear."

But then, apparently, the bee has spurned any warning and has begun to enjoy too much and to his detriment. The wine glass has now become the bee's "grave." The speaker allows the bee to be mourned with an "epitaph" that consists of "a tear."

The speaker commands the bee to board "Charon's boat"—another classical allusion to Greek mythology. Charon was the boatman who ferried the souls of the dead across the River Styx. The speaker promises to alert the dead bee's hive that the little honey bee "died afloat."

Life Sketch of Philip Freneau

Born on January 2, 1752, in New York, Philip Freneau is the first American poet born on American soil. He 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.

A Political Romantic

Although Freneau had a penchant for romanticism by nature, the times in which he lived influenced him to become political. He satirizes the British during the revolutionary period. While attending Princeton University, Freneau and future president James Madison were roommates. After graduation from Princeton, Freneau taught school for while but found that he had no desire to continue in that profession.

In 1775, he met with his first success in writing satirical, political pamphlets. While continuing to write creatively his entire life, he also worked as a sea captain, a journalist, and a farmer. In 1776, he traveled to the West Indies, where he wrote "The House of Night." F. L. Pattee has claimed that this poem was the "first distinctly romantic note heard in America.”

Father of American Poetry

Even with his many political and journalistic pieces, Freneau remained a poet first. He was also deeply spiritual. He would have preferred to focus solely on writing about God's mystery and the beauty of nature, but the turbulent period in which he lived influenced him to broaden his scope.

It is most appropriate that Philip Freneau be titled, "Father of American Poetry." The following musing regarding the nature of his times demonstrates his preference for concentration:

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?

Harsh Criticism

The relative obscurity of Freneau is likely the result of harsh, misunderstanding critics and political opponents who labeled him an incendiary journalist and further denigrated him by calling him a writer of wretched and insolent doggerel. None of which is true, of course.

Most scholars have more generously opined that Freneau could have produced poetry of higher literary merit if he had focused only on poetry instead of politics. No doubt, Freneau believed the same about his works. He felt that the good of the country was more important than what he preferred to spend his time on.

Poet of the Revolution

Freneau’s own remark about the period in which 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, readers are fortunate that several of the important poems of our “Father of American Poetry” are widely available. Whether we prefer to think of him as the “Poet of the Revolution” or “The Father of American Poetry,” Philip Freneau is definitely worth reading and studying.

Sources

  • Bradley, Beatty, Long, eds. The American Tradition in Literature. Vol 1. New York: Norton, 1962. Print.
  • Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. An American Anthology: 1787–1900.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes