Philip Freneau

Philip Freneau (1752 - Present)

Philip [Morin] Freneau fulfilled the dream of his wine merchant father, Pierre Fresneau (old spelling) when he entered the Class of 1771 to prepare for the ministry. Well versed in the classics in Monmouth County under the tutelage of William Tennent, Philip entered Princeton as a sophomore in 1768, but the joy of the occasion was marred by his father’s financial losses and death the year before. In spite of financial hardships, Philip’s Scottish mother believed that her oldest of five children would graduate and join the clergy. Though he was a serious student of theology and a stern moralist all his life, Freneau found his true calling in literature. As his roommate and close friend James Madison recognized early, Freneau’s wit and verbal skills would make him a powerful wielder of the pen and a formidable adversary on the battlefields of print. Freneau soon became the unrivaled “poet of the Revolution” and is still widely regarded as the “Father of American Literature”.

Although Freneau had produced several accomplished private poems before college, it was the intense experience of pre-Revolutionary-War Princeton that turned the poet’s interest to public writing. Political concerns led Madison, Freneau, and their friends Hugh Henry Brackenridge and William Bradford, Jr., to revive the defunct Plain Dealing Club as the American Whig Society. Their verbal skirmishes with the conservative Cliosophic Society provided ample opportunities for sharpening Freneau’s skills in prose and poetic satire. Charged with literary and political enthusiasm, Freneau and Brackenridge collaborated on a rollicking, picturesque narrative, Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca in Arabia, which presents comic glimpses of life in eighteenth-century America. This piece, recently acquired by Princeton and published by the University Library (1975), may well be the first work of prose fiction written in America.

During their senior year Freneau and Brackenridge labored long on another joint project to which Freneau contributed the greater share. Their composition was a patriotic poem of epic design, “The Rising Glory of America”, a prophecy of a time when a united nation should rule the vast continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. At the commencement exercises of September 1771, Brackenridge read this poem to a “vast concourse of the politest company”, gathered at Nassau Hall. The poem articulated the vision and fervor of a young revolutionary generation.

Freneau’s life after Princeton was one of change and conflict. He tried teaching and hated it. He spent two more years studying theology, but gave it up. He felt a deep obligation to perform public service, and his satires against the British in 1775 were written out of fervent patriotism. At the same time he distrusted politics and had a personal yearning to escape social turmoil and war. The romantic private poet within him struggled against his public role. Thus, paradoxically, in 1776 the “poet of the revolution” set sail for the West Indies where he spent two years writing of the beauties of nature and learning navigation. Suddenly in 1778, he returned to New Jersey and joined the militia and sailed the Atlantic as a ship captain. After suffering for six weeks on a British prison ship, he poured his bitterness into his political writing and into much of his voluminous poetry of the early 1780s.

By 1790, at the age of thirty-eight, with two collections of poetry in print and a reputation as a fiery propagandist and skillful sea captain, Freneau decided to settle down. He married Eleanor Forman and tried to withdraw to a quiet job as an assistant editor in New York. But politics called again. His friends Madison and Jefferson persuaded him to set up his own newspaper in Philadelphia to counter the powerful Hamiltonian paper of John Fenno. Freneau’s National Gazette upheld Jefferson’s “Republican” principles and even condemned Washington’s foreign policy. Jefferson later praised Freneau for having “saved our Constitution which was galloping fast into monarchy”, while Washington grumbled of “that rascal Freneau” — an epithet that became the title of Lewis Leary’s authoritative biography (1949).

After another decade of feverish public action, Freneau withdrew again in 1801, when Jefferson was elected president. He retired to his farm and returned occasionally to the sea. During his last thirty years, he worked on his poems, wrote essays attacking the greed and selfishness of corrupt politicians, and sold pieces of his lands to produce a small income. He discovered that he had given his best years of literary productivity to his country, for it had been in the few stolen moments of the hectic 1780’s that he found the inspiration for his best poems, such as “The Indian Burying Ground” and “The Wild Honey-Suckle”, a beautiful lyric which established him as an important American precursor of the Romantics.

Most students of Freneau’s life and writing agree that he could have produced much more poetry of high literary merit had he not expended so much energy and talent for his country’s political goals. In a way, though, he had fulfilled his father’s hopes for him, for he had devoted his life to public service as a guardian of the morals of his society and as a spokesman for the needs of its people.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Philip Freneau's poem Song of Thyrsis

9 Comments

  1. Roxanne Rimonte says:

    This poem is very inspirational and optimistic, which are very different to me. It encourages us to have faith and not give up on the loss of someone special, because it is likely that we will meet someone better suited for us. We should not be hung up on our past; we should learn to move on and accept the painful reality. It is not the end, as said in the poem, “Love again tomorrow.”

  2. Xiayi Zhang says:

    I can’t move my eyes from that line, “Love again tomorrow.” It touches my hidden part of heart. Romantic people have more sensitive feelings and perspectives. We should take our time to see this beautiful world, to feel the wonderful love. Love will never be too much. A simple short peom can wake people up to love. That’s the beauty of poem.

  3. Louie Merced says:

    Losing something or somebody who we value and love so much is a painful and difficult experience. But we all have to learn to accept that death, failures, separations and letting gos are bitter truths of life. However, as Freneau tells us through the poem, we should never dwell on our down moments. We should not allow our sorrows and frustrations to control us for we still have a life to live. True, mourning over a loss or death is a part of the process, but we should not cling on to it for too long. We should still learn how to get up and pick the broken pieces, move on, and learn to live and love once more. I like the verse on loving once more tomorrow. Love is meant to be shared. Everyone deserves to be happy. Everybody deserves to love and be loved. Death and separation should never stop us from feeling and giving out our love to others.

  4. Cho Tol- Tol Park says:

    Philip Freneau is such a romantic poet! His poem seems smooth and lovely in a way he expresses. Personally I love the last line, “Love again tomorrow.” Isn’t it beautiful? (^_^) I agree to other people’s comment! It gave me positive thinking which is more likely to smile on my face. Everything depends on the thinking I suppose. And it reminded one of my favorite quotation which is, “Words can be beautiful. So can dreams. So can hopes.”
    Reading at his poem (the Song of Thyrsis), gave me glimpse of little research about who is Thyrsis? Because when I first read the poem, I couldn’t get the connection with the turtle and Thyrsis. So, I have some of my own analyzation that maybe the turtle was owned by Thyrsis or Thyrsis’s (the sheperd) lost in the singing contest gives similar feeling of sorrowness or sadness like what experienced by the turtle’s mate who was murdered by someone else. Im sure everybody once experienced sadness or sorrowness in ones life! This poem has a connection with the life of Philip Freneau, it said in the history that he had a financial hardship because of his father’s financial losses and death. Moreover Philip did not want the social turmoil and war happenings in his country where he decided to find happiness to the other place. Where he spent some of his life in writing the beautiful poems which he really love to do. I think this poem gives “Chances and Hopes” to everyone who read this poem~

  5. Lianne Gonzalvo says:

    I definitely agree with Judith and Kim – that this poem of Freneau is very optimistic in nature. Today, many find it hard to be optimistic and be happy with life. I find it weird that some people need to go to comedy bars to make themselves happy, at least for a while. But Freneau, through his poem, proved that we can be happy when we are optimistic. I love how he used the feeling of love to capture the hardships of the people because it is a very catchy emotion and because we all can relate to it. All of us experienced love and maybe experienced a love that is lost – love for a friend that is lost, etc. Moreover, I love the human in him. Though he talks about optimism, he also talks about sorrow, which humans definitely undergo every now and then. For me, that is the best way to send across the message of optimism.

  6. Jane Kimberly M. Camarse says:

    This is one of the most inspiring poems I’ve ever read. Philip Freneau have successfully showed how life, although it could be miserable and sorrowful, things will always fall back to their right places. It shows a great deal of optimism in one’s perception of life.

  7. Jane Kimberly M. Camarse says:

    this is one of the most inspiring poems I’ve ever read. Philip Freneau have successfully showed how life, although it could be sorrowful and miserable, it could always be sweet and that things will always eventually fall back to their right places.

  8. Judith Ochengco says:

    I like the way Philip Freneau uses analogy as he refers to human life and dealing with sorrow.

    He uses the turtledove that mourns the death of her mate; but eventually goes with another comrade, willingly taking the chance to be happy again.

    I think Philip Freneau tries to tell us, readers that come a time when grief arrives, we should not dwell on that negative feeling. Instead, we should move on with our lives, face tomorrow and be happy again. I believe that this optimism is a great tool for living a contented life; however, I also want to add that what Philip Freneau’s message is easier said than done.

    The character of Thyrsis (Virgil’s Eclogue 7), from what I’ve found out in the Internet, was a sheperd who lost who lost a singing contest. Just like the turtle, Thyrsis has found himself in a lamentable situation. I think Freneau uses Thyrsis for his title because: (a) Thyrsis’ character reflects what Freneau tries to convey in his poem, about being able to overcome losses and moving on, or (b)in a sense, we are all the character Thyrsis, having our own difficult times; this poem is our song, telling us not to linger on despair but to “love again tomorrow”.

  9. Ellen Johansen says:

    Albert Tepper created a lovely piece of music based on this poem for chorus and piano. Professor Tepper is from Hofstra University in Hempstead New York. He has written many wonderful pieces.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Do you have any comments, criticism, paraphrasis or analysis of this poem that you feel would assist other visitors in understanding the meaning or the theme of this poem by Philip Freneau better? If accepted, your analysis will be added to this page of American Poems. Together we can build a wealth of information, but it will take some discipline and determination.