The Poetry of Independence
The Poetry of Independence
Imitation. Artists and critics would not value originality until the Romantic era transformed arts and letters in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. During the Revolutionary era colonial writers absorbed a cosmopolitan ideal of belles lettres both through their reading of English literature and through their training in the classics at colleges such as Princeton. The rational aesthetic ideals of the enlightenment were developed in art criticism and literary essays, now referred to as term belles lettres, by educated men of letters. Belles lettres distrusted the expression of strong passions and the experience of subjective feeling that would come to dominate the Romantic vision of the artist as an isolated, inspired genius. Instead, like the philosophy of natural law that influenced Thomas Jefferson in his writing of the Declaration of Independence, enlightenment philosophy of aesthetics proposed that truth was universally valid, and that reason was an objective demonstration of human nature, which was uniformly consistent in all times and places. If later Romantic artists such as William Wordsworth, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman would justify their artistic originality on the basis of their private intuitions and subjective interpretations, eighteenth-century artistic thinkers such as Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and many American poets valued instead the imitation of classical models and the repetition of aesthetic standards.
Politics of Style. Classical Greece and Rome had mastered the aesthetic rules of proportion and balance that remained as true for Anglo-America in the eighteenth century as they had been for ancient times, so men of letters felt that they could not do better than follow the Augustan themes and neoclassical forms that represented for them the height of civilized, cosmopolitan taste. Poets Phyllis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon, among the first African American writers to publish in the Western world, were both slaves who used their mastery of neoclassical poetic conventions to defy ideas of racial inferiority. Both learned to read and write and gave literary form to their devout Christian piety and wide learning in the classics. Their literary works demonstrated that civilized character could be acquired through religion and learning and told colonial readers, “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, May be refin’d, and join th’angelic train,” as Phyllis Wheatley noted in “On Being Brought from Africa to America” (1773). In a similar way the poets known as the Hartford Wits adopted cosmopolitan conventions of neoclassical epic poetry in order to invest themes and events of the Revolution with heroic stature. Educated in the oratory of Cicero and the odes of Horace, Philip Freneau, Henry Brackenridge, and other college-educated writers sought in their poetry to give public testimony to the abstract ideals of republicanism to demonstrate that America might properly become the new capital of civilized, cosmopolitan culture. As with the piety of Hammon and Wheatley, the Augustan declamatory style of the early national poets appropriated an existing language in order to convince their colonial audience of the truth of new ideas.
American Identity. The events of the Revolution provoked one of the first substantial bodies of secular poetry in American literature. The disruption that political crisis brought to the lives of Americans tended, on the one hand, to inhibit activity in the arts generally. On the other hand, the urgency of events demanded that writers speak in the most immediate and forceful terms to their audience. The struggle for independence often made literature inseparable from propaganda, but this situation had the benefit of encouraging writers to move beyond the neoclassical conventions and formulas of English literature that had prevented colonial artists from realizing a distinctive American voice. The Revolution gave writers a topic that was unique to the historical, geographic, and moral situation of the colonies; aroused a range of emotional interest that was both diverse and profound; and invited speculation of what it might mean to be “American.”
Philip Freneau. While at Princeton, Philip Freneau joined the American Whig Society, a student club. In this club he taught himself to be a poet by writing satire and preparing verses for the commencement exercises that, through the 1760s, had become a major showcase for native literary achievement. Freneau’s first published piece was the graduation poem he wrote in 1771 with Hugh Henry Brackenridge, A Poem, on The Rising Glory of America, which reflected on the westward course of the empire and concluded with a millennial vision of America as a new Canaan that “shall excel the old.” With his club fellows Brackenridge and James Madison, he composed a farcical romance, Father Bombo’s Pilgrimmage to Mecca (1770), which some scholars have identified as the first American novel. He published his first collection of poems, The American Village, in 1772. While these poems show Freneau’s facility with the conventions of pastoral verse, they also point toward a romantic idealization of American nature that would become a major theme for American writers in the nineteenth century. His later poem, “The Wild Honey Suckle” (1786), secured his reputation as a lyric poet of nature:
Smit with those charms, that must decay,
I grieve to see your future doom;
They died—nor were those flowers more gay,
The flowers that did in eden Bloom;
Unpitying frosts, and Autumn’s power
Shall leave no vestige of this flower.
Pursuing a natural metaphor and elegiac tone for the transience and innocence of beauty, this poem is now seen as the first in the American Romantic tradition that would be developed by William Cullen Bryant and the Transcendentalists in the nineteenth century. Like many of his contemporaries in Revolutionary America, Freneau moved away from an orthodox Calvinist heritage toward a more secular devotion to the political life of the new nation. Not only did he use poetry as a weapon in the struggle for independence, but he also helped to invent a language and a set of topics suited to a democratic literature.
Poet of the Revolution. As the most prolific poet of early America, Freneau played an important role in the development of a national literature. Employing the newspapers and magazines to address a wide popular audience of engaged citizens, Freneau became the first of many writers to strive for a poetry that embodied American identity and to self-consciously pursue a career as a public poet. Unlike some writers who confined their activities to the refined and private world of genteel salons and clubs, Freneau published everything he wrote in magazines, newspapers, and inexpensive book editions. He also was one of the more vitriolic of the patriot poets, and his eagerness to be topical outweighed his desire to emulate the neoclassical finish of polite literature; he would revise many of his poems in later versions. While living in New York, Freneau captured an audience for his poetry with some burlesques of British officials, such as General Gage’s Confession (1775), written in heroic couplets, as well as “Libera Nos, Domine,” which parodies the liturgy of the mass. After living in the West Indies to avoid the war from 1776 to 1778 and stints as a blockade runner in the West Indies and as a captive in a British prison vessel, Freneau joined the Freeman’s Journal in Philadelphia, from which he attacked the British and the Tories with a torrent of satirical and patriotic poetry. The humor and zeal of this work won him his reputation as “The Poet of the Revolution.”
Satire. The best poetry of the Revolution is primarily satirical. John Trumbull, who graduated from Yale College in 1767 with two other members of the Connecticut Wits, Timothy Dwight and David Humphreys, published M’Fingal in 1776 and an expanded revision in 1782. In fifteen hundred couplets the poem describes a town meeting in which a Tory is tarred and feathered after coming into conflict with local Whigs. Trumbull managed to move beyond mere imitation of British satirists such as Samuel Butler and Charles Churchill, adapting native subject matter to an imported mock-epic genre of poetry. The poem is also notable for its detached humor and comic violence in a conflict that, for most writers, invited more bitterness and rage:
The deadly spade discharg’d a blow
Trememdous on his rear below
His bent knee fail’d, and void of strength
Stretch’d on the ground his manly length
Like ancient oak overturned he lay,
Or Tow’rs to tempests fall’ a prey,
And more things else—but all men know ‘em
If slightly vers’d in Epic.
Like Philip Freneau and other Patriot poets, Loyalists such as Jonathan Odell wield their verses like blunt instruments—their moves are often clumsy and unfinished, but meant to inflict quick injury. Odell’s satires The Congratulation (1779) and The American Times (1780) brought to his attack on American leaders some of the precision of Alexander Pope.
Protest Poetry. The learned poets of the Revolution resorted to predictable poetic conventions as a response to an uncertain future, using blank verse and poetic couplets to invest their work with a civic importance. At the same time, however, the volatile political emotions of the colonial era nourished a less polished form of poetry that reached a larger audience through popular songs. In its raw humor, simple language, and obvious rhymes these lyrics did not rely on one’s familiarity with cosmopolitan literary tastes and avoided abstract themes and classical references. Some of these songs were written by educated men of letters, such as “The Liberty Song” (1768), by the Philadelphia lawyer John Dickinson. Published in newspapers and sung during mock funerals for the Goddess of Liberty and various protest rallies staged by the Sons of Liberty and others, “The Liberty Song” was intended to incite patriotic fervor. Like many cartoons, parades, and political texts of the colonial rebellion, these songs helped to disseminate the themes and heroes of the Patriotic struggle for freedom against tyranny and were the means by which Republicanism became popularized as a civil religion. As the poet Joel Barlow, upon entering the Patriot Army, commented, “One good song is worth a dozen addresses or proclamations.”
Yankee Doodle. Another sort of democratic poetry emerging from the folk culture of protest was more plebeian in its themes and was an important contribution to a vernacular comic tradition that would later also include the frontier humor of the Crockett Almanacs and Mark Twain in the nineteenth century. Although there are conflicting stories about the origins of the song “Yankee Doodle,” it appears that the tune was based on a British drinking song. The words were originally intended as a satire of the motley American troops, meant to ridicule the colonials as provincial country bumpkins. The term “Yankee” was itself a contemptuous insult used by the British during the Revolution until Patriot troops used it as a positive emblem of their rebel pride. In April 1775 the redcoats marched to the battle of Concord singing “Yankee Doodle” but were badly beaten. From then on the Yankees would taunt British troops by singing the doggerel, turning the image of the provincial clown into a national symbol. Mocking their own rustic and ragtag simplicity, the rebels used the song in the same way J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur and others used the persona of the simple colonial farmer: they showed that a lack of cosmopolitan cultivation allowed the rebels to defeat British formality and pretention with shrewd practicality and natural sincerity. Many other stories and songs celebrating Patriot triumphs came out of the war, which could be sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” By transforming cultural backwardness into a new form of national identity, Revolutionary Americans invented a truly new and democratic definition of culture.
Elliot, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 31: American Colonial Writers, 1735–1781 (Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark/Detroit: Gale Research, 1984);
Oscar Sonneck, Report on “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Hail Columbia,” “America,” “Yankee Doodle” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1909).