FRENEAU, PHILIP [MORIN] (1752–1832). An “occasional” poet
born in New York City, Philip Freneau during his long life wrote lyric and
narrative poems on a wide range of subjects. Since he spent many years
working on ships, a sizable number of these concern the sea.
Freneau in 1768 entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where fellow students James Madison and Hugh Henry Brackenridge encouraged his penchant for intellectual speculation. Later, during the
war against England, Freneau wrote political poetry and was tagged “the
Poet of the American Revolution.” Some of Freneau’s earliest poems deal
with the sea, including collegiate verses such as “The History of the Prophet
Jonah” (written in 1768) and “Columbus to Ferdinand” (1770), the latter
depicting Christopher Columbus* as both an adventurer and a champion
of reason who sought to prove that the other side of the earth was not all
water. One of Freneau’s best-known collegiate poems, “The Rising Glory
of America” (1771), cowritten with Brackenridge in response to the unpopular Stamp Act, predicted the emergence of a Utopian political entity
extending “from the Atlantic to the Pacific shores.”
Between 1776 and 1778 Freneau avoided the chaos in the wartime colonies by working as a sailor on trading vessels in the Atlantic and Caribbean*
and by serving as the secretary of a sugar plantation on the island of Santa
Cruz. A major poem from this period, “The Beauties of Santa Cruz”
(1776), features, alongside highly romanticized descriptions of the island’s
tropical landscape, Freneau’s identification with the plight of slaves. The
poet’s disdain for the institution of slavery was most memorably expressed
in a later poem set in the West Indies, “To Sir Toby” (1784). In 1778
Freneau returned home to enlist in the New Jersey militia, spending the
next two years leading trading and privateering expeditions. In 1780 Freneau’s ship Aurora was captured by the British navy; the poet was imprisoned in New York harbor, an experience that inspired his important protest
poem, “The British Prison Ship” (1780).
Between 1781 and 1783 Freneau was based in Philadelphia, where he
contributed both poetry and prose to the anti-British periodical Freeman’s
Journal. Although living inland, he continued to write about the sea. For
example, in “On the Late Royal Sloop of War General Monk” (1782), the
poet lauded the April 1782 victory of Hyder Ally over the British ship General Monk. Freneau’s “On the Memorable Victory” (1781) celebrated patriot John Paul Jones’* heroic 1779 conquest of a fleet of British warships.
Freneau captained numerous trading expeditions from 1785 to 1790,
probably to earn money for his marriage to Eleanor Forman. Living apart
from the woman he loved, Freneau composed elegiac poems—including
“Philander: Or the Emigrant” (c. 1788), “To Cynthia” (1789), and “Florio
to Amanda” (1789)—modeled on early eighteenth-century British neoclassical poetry; all of these poems depict lovers separated by the sea. During
this period he also composed descriptive poems evoking the natural environment of the Caribbean and the Atlantic, including “The Hurricane”
(1785) and “The Bermuda Islands” (1788).
By the early 1800s the difficulty of making a living in publishing and the
need to support his family convinced Freneau to return to the sea to work
as a trader. Poems from this period of sea-voyaging are more reflective and
less descriptive than earlier efforts; the poet now favored romantic revelry
(“Lines Written at Sea” [c.1800]) and perceptive characterizations of island
people (“The Nautical Rendezvous” [1800]). About 1807 Freneau returned
to New Jersey, struggled to support his family by farming, and never ventured to sea again.
In 1815 Freneau published a collection of War of 1812 poems that largely
commemorate naval warfare, including “The Battle of Lake Erie” (1813),
“The Terrific Torpedoes” (1814), and “On the Naval Attack near Baltimore” (1814). Although a house fire destroyed many of his manuscripts, papers, and letters in 1818, Freneau continued to write poems until his
death. He was the most prolific colonial American poet, with over 550 poems and many prose pieces preserved in print.