Philip Freneau’s “The English Quixote of 1778; Or, Modern Idolatry”

I know that in a lot of these posts, I probably write a lot that has already been written. To some people, that may be a waste of time for me to do. If you’ve already read something, I encourage you to move on. Undoubtedly, my analysis of the frontier thesis was not novel, but the thoughts were original to me, and if I can come to my own conclusions then read information to counter them, that is for the best. So, if I ever tread into territory well-trampled, I hope any reader I have, should I be lucky enough to have any, will forgive me.

Anyhow, I’m stuck in a bit of a history rut, so today I’ll be exploring the Revolutionary period of American history. Originally I was going to explore the Americanism of the founding fathers, being much less British than I think they are conceived as, but then I got distracted by Philip Freneau, the “poet of the Revolution,” and began to read some of his poems. Now, rather than do a general survey (I have not read everything by him, and with all the long f’s, I don’t expect I’ll strain myself in doing so), I’m going to explore just a single short poem, “The English Quixote of 1778; Or, Modern Idolatry,” to see what may be learned in terms of American poetry during the Revolution.

The poem, as one may surmise from the title, is a mocking bit aimed at British volunteers coming to fight in America. In a lot of sense, it is a poem that hearkens back to English Augustan literature memorable from the early half of the 18th century. It is sarcastic, but not in a playfully; it is Juvenalian. Coming after Freneau had been kidnapped by the British, this is not surprising. By this time, Freneau was fully devoted to the revolutionary cause. However, by this time English poetry, and prose, had moved on from this sort of writing (the crown now being stable and comfortable in its role as colonizer) – Dr. Johnson is probably the author which springs to most people’s minds if you asked them to name a popular author around 1776 (though he was quite aged at the time), with still 20 years until Lyrical Ballads would appear.

With that said, why is this type of poetry being used in America? Let’s get into the poem first, to see what Freneau is specifically doing in this poem and what we may make of that.

The overall structure of the poem is worth noting. It is split into two parts. One, an English speaker, is written in an unusual rhyme structure, aaab cccb eeed fffd, etc., and makes up most of the poem. It contains a multitude of exclamation points, as well as references to the power of George the Third, including a direct reference to his divine right, “In him true true glory shines complete,/In him a thousand virtues meet-/’Twere heaven to die at George’s feet.”

It is a satire of the patriotic form: uninspired, repetitious rhyme, filled with overzealous praise for the king and willingness to commit any amount of violence, although it will go unrewarded: “Tis he shall conquer France and Spain-/Though I perhaps may ne’er again/Behold my native shore.” This is perhaps Freneau’s best criticism of the English military (and any military); that they are sent out to conquer lands which are never their own, perpetually fighting for the only country they never see.

Is the rhyme uninspired? Certainly the triplet form which starts each stanza is. “Away/stay/say” is echoed in “sway/obey/pray,” (though this one is worth something in terms of the American view of religion), the long a then haunts the “chain/reign/main” trio, which is repeated in “reign/Spain/again.”

However, in the linking rhymes one may discover Freneau’s true estimation of monarchy, and perhaps, patriotism. While “blood” and “flood” indicate the rather ruthless violence necessary for colonization, “bring” and “king” speaks to the purpose while “adore” and “native shore” is the soldier’s refrain of justification.

Meanwhile, the second part is from another speaker who is chastising the British presence in America. Freneau compares the British devotion to the monarchy to those “Idols, of old,” “that men have worshipp’d… tho’ of their own creat-.” To him, British patriotism is no different than the honor of any random object.

Interesting, he does a bit of a lunge at Christianity: the Cross is implicated when he pokes fun at those who “bow’d to gods that were but logs before.” Christianity’s place in early America is a fascinating one: in spite of a few Great Awakenings, many of the founders were Deists, more interested in human philosophy than interpreting the Bible. The fact that church and state are separated probably wasn’t to protect religion, but maybe because religious zealotry, as a rule, makes for a terrible government.

He also takes some shots at the king in his rhyme in this second part, which uses couplets organized into quatrains. “Rule” is paired with “fool,” a comparison that makes its meaning obvious. “Fear” with “rear,” one suspects, is an argument about what a king truly inspires. It is clear that Freneau believes one of the primary failings of the English Monarchy is any attachment it may claim to religion. It’s attachment, of course, is quite large, given the establishment of the Church of England.

In the reference to Quixote, Freneau brings up all the associations with the character and attaches them to the British character: hard-headedness, the desire to find an adventure even where there is none, the willingness to commit violence for no discernible reason, and most importantly, the devotion to, and requisite eventual reward from, the state.

Yet, in this satire, we actually find Freneau committing every offense he detests because every time he undoes a part of the British patriot, it is meant to raise the American one. In the end, it’s hard to think Freneau himself could have bought into much of what he is writing in the poem, because it implicates the American patriot as well. It may well be argued that the Constitution heads this off, but that would be wrong, and one only need be reminded that long after the Revolutionary War ended, Washington had to say two terms was enough. On top of that, the Constitution fills that role now anyways. Freneau may have a laugh that we made an idol of something so frail and flammable, of something that used to be a log.

The original question, however, remains. Why did Freneau use this form? The reason for the Quixote allusion and satire are clear – it is the simplest way to attack the British in poetry. However, unlike the Augustans, Freneau is able to make his attack fairly clear, the reasons for that probably lie in the libel law restricting writers like Pope and Swift, whereas Freneau really has nothing to force him to be creative in obscuring his target.

But this form is already stale by the time Freneau uses it. I’d argue that America’s detest of Britain, natural given the war, hurt the progress of American writing, never opening it to the new styles of writing which were being explored in England, especially the prosaic essay (though there may be an interesting parallel between Johnson and Paine to be examined). Likely, Frenneau’s reliance on an old standard was not due to it being the best approach (another parallel involving Paine may be drawn here, comparing how we study him versus Freneau today), but rather because it was the best approach he knew.

The question this raises concerns about how long it took American writing to open up itself to European, and especially popular English, forms. Did the Romantics make an impact on America? Longfellow brought it over, certainly, but 30 years late, after Wordsworth arguably (and according to Byron) had abandoned the principles.

That lag seems to be vital to the development of an American canon, thanks to Longfellow’s import evidently not having much an impact on the transcendentalists, nor Whitman. Goodness, so much to consider, and so little that matters.

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