THERE is still room for debate as to who was the first American bard. It is open to any one to hold a brief for Sandys or Wigglesworth or another; but with the first two volumes of Mr. Pattee’s noble edition of The Poems of Philip Freneau1 before us, we do not hesitate to assert roundly that Freneau was the first really interesting American poetical character, and the first citizen of these States to write poetry of real distinction.
It was a happy judgment that led the Princeton Historical Association to choose the work of Freneau, the first and best Princeton poet, for their initial publication, and the result proves that the selection of Mr. Pattee as editor was equally felicitous. He has performed his difficult task with exceptional intelligence and taste. He has spared no pains in giving us a complete and accurate text of Freneau’s copious and widely scattered poetry; and he has searched many and hardly accessible sources to provide a full and authoritative record of the poet’s multifarious life.
How romantic and significant that life was, it is now, for the first time, possible to realize. It would be a pleasant affair to recount in detail the “rubs, doublings, and wrenches” that made up Freneau’s career, to narrate in order his adventures as student, publicist, sailor, pamphleteer, sea-captain, British prisoner, magazine editor, poet, and country gentleman; but for this the interested reader must be referred to the book itself, where he will find an admirable narrative of American life in Revolutionary days.
But it is the poetry of Freneau that is the most interesting thing in these volumes. Reading through it all, as it is now first collected in its entirety, one is struck by the extraordinary measure in which it shows a rich poetic temperament, guided by a good knowledge of the best literature, and fed by the experiences of an adventurous life. The range of Freneau’s reading was remarkable for his time and place. We find clear traces of his liking for Virgil and Horace; for Ariosto; for Sackville, Spenser, Waller, Cowley, Dryden, Collins, Gray,Goldsmith, “Ossian,” and Falconer. But his reading was less important to his poetic quality than either his experience or his temperament. His best days were spent on shipboard, and he is almost the best poet of the sea since Camoëns. The chief trait of his intellectual constitution was his sincere sensitiveness, hence he is almost never academic or conventional. By reason of this same trait, his dealings with nature are at their best of a fresh, imaginative simplicity that is very rare.
Freneau’s vigorous political satire has doubtless been the most potent factor in his posthumous repute, as it was in his prominence in his own time, but neither this nor any other branch of his very various work is likely to maintain his fame so long as those few odes wherein he handles an imaginative American subject with a firm delicacy of touch that is quite worthy of Collins. Had he written nothing but these stanzas of The Dying Indian, his place as a poet of quality would have been secure: —
Wandering a stranger to the shores below,
Where shall I brook or real fountain find ?
Lazy and sad deluding waters flow —
Such is the picture in my boding mind !
Fine tales, indeed, they tell
Of shades and purling rills,
Where our dead fathers dwell
Beyond the western hills ;
But when did ghost return his state to shew ;
Or who can promise half the tale is true ?
None, none but shadows to those mansions go ;
I leave my woods, I leave the Huron shore,
For emptier groves below !
Ye charming solitudes,
Ye tall ascending woods,
Ye glassy lakes and prattling streams
Whose aspect still was sweet
Whether the sun did greet,
Or the pale moon embraced you with her beams —
Adieu to all!
To all that charmed me where I strayed,
The winding stream, the dark sequestered
Adieu all triumphs here !
Adieu the mountain’s lofty swell,
Adieu, thou little verdant hill,
And seas, and stars, and skies — farewell,
For some remoter sphere !
To our ears to-day there is inevitably a touch of falsetto in a poet’s “ adieu; ” but with a little exercise of the historic imagination, and a little re-reading of the English poets who preceded and were contemporary with Freneau, we may not only understand why Freneau’s work of this type was so highly praised by Scott, by Campbell, by Jeffrey himself,but we may also feel the better how truly poetic it is.
Freneau’s final place and distinction in the history of American poetry can be no better stated than they are by Mr. Pattee:
“Before Freneau, American poetry had been full of the eglantine, the yew, the Babylonian willow, the lark — the flora and fauna of the Hebrew and British bards. In our poet we find, for the first time, the actual life of the American forest and field, — the wild pink, the elm, the wild honeysuckle, the pumpkin, the blackbird, the squirrel, the partridge, ‘the loquacious whip-poor-will,’ and in addition to this the varied life of the American tropic islands. We find for the first time examples of that true poetic spirit that can find inspiration in humble and even vulgar things; that, furthermore, can draw from low nature and her commonplaces deep lessons for human life.
- The Poems of Philip Freneau, Poet of the American Revolution. Edited for the Princeton Historical Association by FRED LEWIS PATTEE, vol. i, vol. ii. Princeton : The University Library. 1902, 1903.↩