Philip Freneau’s poetry gave rise to no school, and it fired no tradition. At all points, however, it celebrates the American quest for freedom—freedom of the individual to choose a political and intellectual identity, to pursue creative and artistic imagination, and to discover religious or spiritual commitment. Even America’s rugged natural terrain seemed to promise limitless possibilities of achieving social and cultural independence. The principal subjects of Freneau’s poems, then, include politics, the imagination, theology, and nature. His poems reveal the inner struggle of a man who refused to settle into the security of dogma (whether of a particular church or of societal codes) and who determined to find his own explanations for the human predicament. This determination to search for his own answers anticipates the attitude of later writers from the American Renaissance onward.
Jefferson’s statement that Freneau “saved our constitution” readily identifies the trenchant role this citizen of the new republic played in politics. In addition to his numerous, biting essays that strike out against British cruelties and Hamilton’s Federalism, Freneau wrote poetry dealing with various controversial political issues. In “The British Prison-Ship,” Freneau exposes British inhumanity to American prisoners. Among Freneau’s many political poems is a particularly strong indictment of slavery; “To Sir Toby” is as forceful a condemnation of traffic in human cargo as any of its time. After isolating the central motive for the practice of slavery—greed—the poet then describes the plight of the innocent victims of this avarice as the unwitting and certainly unwilling participants in a veritable hell on earth. In this description, Freneau makes effective use of his classical training; the pictures of the black man’s torture call up horrible scenes “thatVergil’s pencil drew.” The captains of the slave ships become“surly Charons,” while the slave masters who put to torture the new ranks of “ghosts” are “beasts, . . . Plutonian scourges, and despotic lords.”
Freneau’s poems on the force of the imagination may seem to be light-years away from his political poetry; such, however, is hardly the case. His poems on politics and the imagination merely represent two sides of the same coin whose mint is freedom. Those poems dealing with politics address problems of freedom in the actual world; those centering on the imagination treat of the ideal world produced by artistic creativity whose freedom is apparently boundless. It is fitting that one of this poet’s earliest works is devoted entirely to the subject of the imagination; “The Power of Fancy” was composed in 1770 while Freneau was still an undergraduate at Princeton. In this piece, the young poet delineates the fancy as “regent of the mind,” the mental faculty that derives its power from divine inspiration. By the power of fancy, the mind can set out on a cosmic journey, exploring distant stars, the moon, and even hell. From this journey through the cosmos, the fancy then takes the poet out into the Atlantic and on to such exotic sites as the Caribbean, the Pacific, and the Mediterranean. In the final lines of the poem, the young Freneau calls the fancy “the muses’ pride” wherein “reside/ Endless images of things.” These images are of “Ideal objects such a store,/ The universe could hold no more.”
The sort of imagination Freneau describes in “The Power of Fancy” clearly owes much to Plato’s theory of ideal forms; it is the function of the poet, so Freneau maintains, to tap this realm of forms for his own poetic images. The fancy then serves the poet as a mode of memory and is closely aligned with Lockean associative psychology. The view of the fancy or imagination that Freneau advances in this poem looks back rather than forward; it more nearly approximates the operation of the imagination explored by Mark Adenside in The Pleasures of Imagination, an immensely popular book-length poem first printed in English in 1744, than it points ahead toward the Romantics of the early nineteenth century. The mode of fancy that Freneau depicts in “The House of Night,” however, looks to the future; written some nine years later than “The Power of Fancy,” this poem suggests an affinity for some of the poems of John Keats. In the later poem, Freneau maintains that the power of fancy can in sleep play a “wild delusive part so well/ you lift me into immortality,/ Depict new heavens, or draw scenes of hell”; Keats’s immortal nightingale sings a similar strain.
Other Romantic elements occur in “The House of Night,” especially those projecting gothicism. Freneau achieves some gothic effects by use of the element of surprise. At one point in this poem about a young man’s encounter with the personification of death (a gothic effect in itself), for example, the youth (as persona) describes darkness in terms of Apollo and his chariot of the sun. Rather than a blazing chariot, “darkness rode/ In her black chariot.” Some lines of the poem strongly suggest Poe. Seduced by Death into attending him as he approaches his own “death,” the youth describes his predicament in unsettling lines. In such phrases as “sad chamber,” languishing “in despair,” and breathing “loathsome air,” one might fully expect to find Poe’s “The Raven” or in such short stories as his “The Fall of the House of Usher” or “Ligeia.”
Theology and nature
The power of the imagination enabled Freneau to explore much more than his tendency to create strange, even perverse images and characters; indeed, in his poetry, he appears to pursue the construction of a personal theology. This pursuit is...
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Like so many other leading figures of the American Revolution who crafted a democratic nation upon ideas of liberty and equality, Freneau religious views tended toward scientific deism. His non-political lyrical poetry expounds upon the basic decency of man as well as the benevolent disinterest of a creator. God does not intervene in the lives of mortals, but is responsible for the beauty and glory of the natural world surrounding him.
Freneau was at the forefront of envisioning a literature that was unique American and which had been disconnected from the myths, histories and class differences characterizing its European antecedent. Poems like “On the Emigration to America and Peopling the Western Country” and “Columbus to Ferdinand” are central to Freneau’s concept that the movement westward by Europeans represented a symbolic movement of reason, equality and independent thought. These poems indicate a deeply felt and fervently expressed conviction that American—still primarily an untamed frontier, remember—was the natural inheritor of transfer of culture from ancient Greece and Rome to France and England. The expression of this idea occurred at a time, it is important to keep in mind, when Freneau himself was forced to seek employment in other fields because of the difficulty of making a living as a writer in America.
Both during the American Revolutionary and afterwards, Freneau’s poetry was infused with the ideology of Jeffersonian ideals of democracy. His verse called for the equality of the common man with the privileged man while also extolling the moral superiority of the simple rural personality over the business entrepreneur. His pre-independence poetry rates among the most explicit in calling attention to the unfairness and despotism of the British while afterward he refused to dull his pen in attacking even George Washington when he felt that the President was not doing enough to obstruct the corruption of ideals from the corrupting force of ambition. A particular target for Freneau in both poetry and prose was Alexander Hamilton who represented the opposite end of the American democratic spectrum.