The Close of Eighteenth Century
V. THE CLOSE OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY. TRANSITION: POETRY, DRAMA,
FICTION, PERIODICAL LITERATURE.
Coincidentally with the satires, the epics, the songs and ballads, which owed their measure of inspiration
immediately to the spirit of that strenuous time, we note also the appearance of a different school of
verse which meant infinitely more in the development of our literary art.
Among the satirists of the Revolutionary epoch, there was none whose pen was readier or sharper in
its thrusts than Philip Freneau; and among the poems of the war itself, none holds a firmer place in our
literature than Freneau's brief elegy on the valiant who died at Eutaw Springs. One line of this poem
was thought worthy of adaptation by the author of Marmion.1 But Freneau's strongest claim for remembrance
lies in a few compositions which mark the beginning of nature poetry in America.
Philip Freneau owed his foreign name to Huguenot ancestry, but he was born in New York and was
graduated, in 1771, at Princeton, where he had been a classmate and room-mate with James Madison.
In the early part of his career Freneau engaged in commercial ventures in the West Indies and made
frequent voyages, commanding his own vessel. Once (in 1780) he was captured by the British and
was for several weeks confined in an English prison ship in New York harbor. The hardships of this
experience are rehearsed in a poem entitled The British Prison Ship, filled to the brim with the horror
and rancor of his suffering. Many another fierce broadside did he hurl at the nation's foe, until hostilities
ceased. After the war, Freneau entered journalism, but his later years were comparatively inactive. Near
the close of his eightieth year, on a December night, returning to his home from a gathering with friends,
he lost his way in the snow and fell by the road-side; the next morning he was found dead.
The compositions which have done most for Freneau's fame as a poet belong to his earlier years. In
these productions, we find the beginning of genuine nature poetry in America. Here we have Freneau's
opening lines on The Wild Honeysuckle:--
"Fair flower, that dost so comely grow,
Hid in this silent, dull retreat,
Untouched thy honied blossoms blow,
thy little branches greet;
No roving foot shall crush thee here,
No busy hand provoke a tear."
To a Honeybee, addressed to a wandering rover from the hive resting luxuriously on the rim of the poet's
glass, is written with the same charming simplicity of style and with a dainty touch of humor befitting the
"Welcome! -- I hail you to my glass:
All welcome, here, you find;
Here, let the cloud of trouble pass,
be all care resigned.
This fluid never fails to please,
And drown the griefs of men or bees.
take not, oh! too deep a drink,
And in this ocean die;
Here bigger bees than you might sink,
full six feet high.
Like Pharaoh, then, you would be said
To perish in a sea of red.
"Do as you please, your
will is mine;
Enjoy it without fear,
And your grave will be this glass of wine,
Your epitaph -- a tear --
your seat in Charon's boat;
We'll tell the hive, you died afloat."
Of a different tenor are two poems in pensive key: The Indian Student and The Indian Burying-ground.
In all these compositions, we feel the spirit of a true poet who loves Nature and responds to her appeals
spontaneously and without artifice. There had been a few previous attempts at this form of treatment
in American verse, but they had been isolated instances and had failed of the excellence attained by
Freneau. These poems are therefore the more worthy of note. The volume which contains these productions
appeared in 1786 -- the same year in which the first volume of the poems of Robert Burns was published; and
twelve years before the Lyrical Ballads introduced William Wordsworth as the first recognized champion
of simplicity and naturalness in English verse.