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First American-Born Poet: 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?
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.
Introduction to Philip Freneau
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes