Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

What I Know of Freneau

The other day, Writer's Almanac mentioned the birthday of poet William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), and I did a little FB post about him.

And thinking about him, I soon was thinking about Philip Freneau (1752-1832), a poet from an earlier era of American history (see picture above). When I was an undergraduate at Hiram College, I wrote one of my first full-length papers about Freneau, and I'm sad to say that I still have it.

Title: "Muse or Musket? Conflicts in the Poetry of Philip Freneau." It was due, I see, on December 9, 1965, almost exactly fifty years ago. It was my senior year. The course: American Thought I; the professor: Dr. Abe C. Ravitz.

The text is thirteen typed pages (on erasable bond paper!) There are another two pages of endnotes, another page of bibliography.A budding critic, I have made a little note about Mary S. Austin's Philip Freneau: The Poet of the Revolution (1901): "This most certainly is the most poorly written biography in American literature!" It's the surely that saves me, for in 1965, clearly, I had  not read too many American literary biographies.

My introduction contains these memorable (?) words: "Vacillating constantly, Freneau touched upon all the subjects and attitudes of the young republic. In a sense the waverings of Freneau paralleled that [those?] of America." My.

The concluding sentence: "Forever vacillating between art and patriotism, Freneau did reveal flashes of originality; [; ..?] and it was these brief moments that laid the groundwork for succeeding generations of American poets."

(Guess who'd recently learned the word vacillating?)

A-.  Dr. Ravitz wrote that it was a "good and interesting job"--but suggested I missed a good source I should have used. (I probably missed a lot more than one!)

I don't have the heart to read the whole thing. No one wants to think less of himself!

So what does this have to do with anything?

Well, I thought I ought to memorize one of Freneau's poems, just for Old Time's Sake. And so this week I did. "The Indian Burying Ground"--a poem that still appears in anthologies (though its PC status is certainly iffy--more so, really).

It also contains one of the most laughable stanzas in American poetry. I'm sure you'll see which one it is with a quick reading.*

Anyway, it's now in my head (including that howler of a stanza), and I cannot imagine an occasion when it would be appropriate for me to recite it.

But I've always been kind of (very much so?) inappropriate. So if you want to hear it, well, next time you see me ...

The Indian Burying Ground

In spite of all the learned have said,
    I still my old opinion keep;
The posture, that we give the dead,
    Points out the soul's eternal sleep.

Not so the ancients of these lands—
    The Indian, when from life released,
Again is seated with his friends,
    And shares again the joyous feast.

His imaged birds, and painted bowl,
    And venison, for a journey dressed,
Bespeak the nature of the soul,
    Activity, that knows no rest.

His bow, for action ready bent,
    And arrows, with a head of stone,
Can only mean that life is spent,
    And not the old ideas gone.

Thou, stranger, that shalt come this way,
    No fraud upon the dead commit—
Observe the swelling turf, and say
    They do not lie, but here they sit.

Here still a lofty rock remains,
    On which the curious eye may trace
(Now wasted, half, by wearing rains)
    The fancies of a ruder race.

Here still an aged elm aspires,
    Beneath whose far-projecting shade
(And which the shepherd still admires)
    The children of the forest played!

There oft a restless Indian queen
    (Pale Shebah, with her braided hair)
And many a barbarous form is seen
    To chide the man that lingers there.

By midnight moons, o'er moistening dews;
    In habit for the chase arrayed,
The hunter still the deer pursues,
    The hunter and the deer, a shade!

And long shall timorous fancy see
    The painted chief, and pointed spear,
And Reason's self shall bow the knee
    To shadows and delusions here.

*I'm talking about the one that begins "Thou, stranger ...."

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