Philip Freneau's "The Wild Honeysuckle"

Updated on July 8, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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 - Poet of the Revolution

Engraving by Frederick Halpin
Engraving by Frederick Halpin | Source

Introduction and Text of Poem

The speaker in Freneau's "The Wild Honeysuckle" addresses a lovely honeysuckle flower, marveling in its beauty and the surroundings in which he finds the flowers; then he turns to philosophizing about the nature of the little flower and how its situation mirrors the lives of all created beings.

The speaker broadens his concern from just one little beautiful flower when he introduces the allusion to the Garden of Eden, wherein all flowers prelapsarian would have lived eternally, and even though this little postlapsarian honeysuckle must die, the speaker is sure that it is no less "gay"—meaning cheerfully beautiful—than those Edenic flowers.

The Wild Honeysuckle

Fair flower, that dost so comely grow,
Hid in this silent, dull retreat,
Untouched thy honied blossoms blow,
Unseen thy little branches greet:
No roving foot shall crush thee here,
No busy hand provoke a tear.

By Nature’s self in white arrayed,
She bade thee shun the vulgar eye,
And planted here the guardian shade,
And sent soft waters murmuring by;
Thus quietly thy summer goes,
Thy days declining to repose.

Smit with those charms, that must decay,
I grieve to see your future doom;
They died—nor were those flowers more gay,
The flowers that did in Eden bloom;
Unpitying frosts and Autumn’s power
Shall leave no vestige of this flower.

From morning suns and evening dews
At first thy little being came;
If nothing once, you nothing lose,
For when you die you are the same;
The space between is but an hour,
The frail duration of flower.

Reading of "The Wild Honeysuckle"

Commentary

This poem to a flower shows off the poet's softer, spiritually philosophical side, as he has his speaker address and contemplate the life of a wild honeysuckle.

First Stanza: Hiding out of Sight

Fair flower, that dost so comely grow,
Hid in this silent, dull retreat,
Untouched thy honied blossoms blow,
Unseen thy little branches greet:
No roving foot shall crush thee here,
No busy hand provoke a tear.

The speaker begins by addressing the flower, calling it "Fair flower," and telling the beautiful blossom that it is growing quite lovely in this out-of-the-way spot, where silence reigns, where instead of having busy noise and chaos play out, one may "retreat" in "dull" serenity, a state preferable for contemplation and meditation.

The speaker is telling the lovely natural plant what it already knows, but in doing so he allows his readers and listeners to accompany him on his little nature walk. He continues to remind the flower that its convenient off-the-beaten-path location allows it to "blow" without human hands fondling its petals, and while its little branches remain unseen to crowds of human eyes, it does greet cheerfully those who happen upon it.

Finally, the speaker pays the little flower a huge compliment, observing that its hidden location allows it to remain uncrushed by human feet, and allows it to remain whole for no human "hand" is likely to pick it and "tear" its beauty away from its natural habitat.

The interesting use of the word "tear" in the final line, "No busy hand provoke a tear," actually features a pun on the word "tear." Although the better interpretation here of "tear" is rip, shred, or lacerate, its meaning of clear salty water that gushes from the eyes during the act of crying could also be interpreted. The tear drops meaning would, however, introduce the pathetic fallacy, personifying the flower and suggesting it would cry is just on the edge of an acceptable interpretation.

Second Stanza: Planted by the Soft Waters

By Nature’s self in white arrayed,
She bade thee shun the vulgar eye,
And planted here the guardian shade,
And sent soft waters murmuring by;
Thus quietly thy summer goes,
Thy days declining to repose.

The speaker continues to describe the favorable location of the flower that luckily possesses a nice shade tree to protect it from the blistering sun. The speaker also mentions that nature has dressed the flower in a natural white shade of color and planted it by a bubbling stream of water, necessary, of course, to all life wild and domestic. He is quite taken with the convenience of the appropriate surrounding wherein he has discovered this thriving, lush plant.

In this marvelous setting, this beautiful flower may pass its summers quietly, peacefully, and without incident. It may enjoy its days and then recline comfortably at night. The speaker is likely creating a setting that he would desire for himself—a serene, shaded off-the-path spot where he could enjoy quiet summer days and recline in peace and comfort at night.

Third Stanza: The Blooms of Eden

Smit with those charms, that must decay,
I grieve to see your future doom;
They died—nor were those flowers more gay,
The flowers that did in Eden bloom;
Unpitying frosts and Autumn’s power
Shall leave no vestige of this flower.

The speaker then admits that he has become enamored by the "charms" of this little flower, and he then turns quite melancholy because this flower must "decay." Knowing that the flower is doomed to a short existence, he begins to "grieve" at the future prospect of the flower's life ending.

The speaker then makes a remarkable comparison to the flowers in "Eden"—he tells this honey-suckle that he has just encountered that the flowers in Eden did not possess any more beauty than the flower in front of him. While those in Eden went down in decay, the current cruel frost and the postlapsarian forces of "Autumn's power" will demolish this currently living, thriving flower. And those forces will "leave no vestige" of its presence. It will be as if this once lovely creature never existed.

Fourth Stanza: The Soul's Eternity

From morning suns and evening dews
At first thy little being came;
If nothing once, you nothing lose,
For when you die you are the same;
The space between is but an hour,
The frail duration of flower.

The speaker, who has all along been inserting little bits of philosophical thought, now turns completely to philosophizing. The speaker speculates about the flower's origin, its being having been directed at least in part by sun in the morning and dew in the evening. He then implies that the little flower may have once been "nothing"—out of nothing it came and into nothing it will again return.

Thus, the flower, in fact, has nothing to lose by dying, because beings are the same in life and in death. This claim suggests that the speaker is aware that the soul is the true identity of each living being, and the soul is the same in life and death. He has now affirmed his faith in the spiritual level of being, and it gives him great comfort.

The speaker then makes the universal statement that the space of time between deaths, the space wherein the beings are considered "living" is short or "but an hour." The lives of all beings may be said to "flower" when they are incarnate. And that incarnated being remains "frail" because the "duration" of its flowering remains so short. The implication remains that while life of an incarnated being is short, its true duration is infinite; thus a flower, an animal, and a human being lose nothing in death.

Philip Freneau

Source

Life Sketch of Philip Freneau

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

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. Born on January 2, 1752, in New York, Freneau is the first American poet born on American soil. 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 his own desires and literary career.

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, 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.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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