Interpretation of "The Indian Burying Ground" by Philip Freneau

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

13 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction to “The Indian Burying Ground” by Philip Freneau

2. Short Biography of Philip Freneau

3. About the Poem

4. Interpretation

5. Closing Statement

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction to “The Indian Burying Ground” by Philip Freneau

Philip Freneau describes in his romantic poem from 1787 “The Indian Burying Ground” the differences between European funeral traditions, influenced by Christianity, and the traditions for funerals of some Native American tribes. He shows in detailed pictures the activity that is still visible in the Native American dead opposing the sleeping posture given to European dead. He also points out how close the Native American way of life and death is to nature in its partially wild and savage way by describing their habits and clothes. Their natural concept of handling life and especially death is here seen as superior to the civilized European world. The European people could have learnt something from the Indians instead of attempting to civilize them according to their ideas and ideals.

2. Short Biography of Philip Freneau

The French Huguenot family Fresneau fled from persecution through the Roman Catholic Church to North America in 1709 and settled in New York. Later, they changed their name to Freneau, but named their plantation in Monmouth County, New Jersey Mount Pleasant after their residence in France. They were very successful in the family trade: the wine trade (Von Teck).

Philip Morin Freneau was born on January 2nd 1752 at the family plantation Mount Pleasant to Pierre Freneau and Agnes Watson. He was the oldest one of five children and the first family member to spell his name Freneau (Von Teck).

Although the death of his father in the previous year had caused the family financially hard times, Philip Freneau went to attend Princeton College in 1768. He found his true calling in literature instead of the ministry and Princeton after the War of Independence influenced his decision for public and political involvement. Philip Freneau had published poems before College, but in College he became an acknowledged poet (Elliott).

After graduation, Philip Freneau started to work as a teacher, but did not like the profession. He studied theology for two more years and then started working on ships, cruising through the West Indies. He was held captive for six weeks on board of a British prisoner ship in 1778. He used his poetry to cope with this experience (Elliott).

He settled down in 1790, got married to Eleanor Forman and aimed for a quieter career as an assistant editor. James Madison, an old friend of Freneau’s from College, and Thomas Jefferson convinced him to publish his own newspaper, The National Gazette, to challenge the paper of John Fenno and promote the Republican ideals. This made him a popular spokesman for the Republican party, but also upset George Washington (Elliott).

When Jefferson became president in 1801, Philip Freneau retired to his farm. It always seemed like his involvement in political actions interfered with his private wish for a quieter life, nevertheless he always dutifully came when his country called for him. He died on December 18th 1832, having led a long and productive life as a poet (Elliott).

3. About the Poem

Philip Freneau is often said to be the first Romantic writer of the United States, but he was also still part of the Enlightenment and the Augastan age. He picked up in his poems what was according to Cecil A. Moore the connection between Enlightenment and romantic period: God as part of a natural world order (Busch 71).

“The Indian Burying Ground” is also representative for its time, for the transition from neo-classicism to romanticism and the feelings of the Western society of the 18th century as a whole. Although in his times, Freneau was mainly known for his satires and critical poetry on Great Britain, his imperfection, being neither a completely neo-classical nor being a completely romantic poet, made his work that outstanding for future generations (Busch 75).

Freneau’s main accomplishments are in the field of natural poetry, but his diction stays always quite conventional and within the borders of neo-classical poetry. Rarely did he find the right words to evoke colors, smells and sounds in the reader’s imagination in his other poems. Early British romanticists were much more advanced in this field than Freneau, but he is still a pioneer in romantic natural poetry in the United States. His best poems describe in short a personal view of nature including the simplest details to induce pictures in the readers mind (Busch 75-76).

But nevertheless, for an American poet in the 18th century, it is amazing how Freneau kept the theme of funeral tradition throughout the poem and causes “The Indian Burying Ground” to stand out against other poems of that period. This picturesque form of the themes was also rare at the time and poems used to be judged on the basis of how well the poet was able to conduct the conventional form while originality was rather a marginal quality. Today, the opposite is done and it is remarkable that all great pieces of art that survived the centuries share the quality of being made within the contemporary conventions and yet showing originality by being unique and inventive (Busch 72).

4. Interpretation

The poem „The Indian Burying Ground“ is subdivided into ten stanzas. Each stanza consists of four lines with an alternate rhyme scheme that leads to an end stop at the end of every line. The term “Europeans” is in this interpretation used to refer to immigrants from Europe and Americans of European descendant to avoid saying ‘people with a European cultural background’.

1st Stanza:

In the first stanza, Freneau describes European funeral traditions and gives a hint of his mixed feelings towards them. This stanza starts with “In spite of” that signifies contradiction. In the second line, he introduces the first-person narrator, “I” and uses an alliteration, “old opinion” (line two), to emphasis the narrators view.

The first stanza already sets the frame for the pictures to come in Freneau’s poem: “The posture that we give the dead” (line 3). The “eternal sleep” in the last line of the first stanza finds it counterpart in the second stanza in “joyous feast” (line eight) that is the extreme opposite, because in a joyous feast all the qualities of life are celebrated (Busch 74).

Freneau reevalues “the learned” (line one) in the first stanza and in this case, he diminishes education and intellect for something that the reader will not find out about until the second stanza (Busch 73).


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Interpretation of "The Indian Burying Ground" by Philip Freneau
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (FTSK Germersheim)
“Democracy Ma Femme. Looking for Liberty in American Letters.”
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
437 KB
Poem, Poetry, Interpretation, Gedichtsinterpretation, Philip Freneau, Native Americans, Indianer
Quote paper
Petra Hühnert (Author), 2009, Interpretation of "The Indian Burying Ground" by Philip Freneau, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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