From Neoclassicism to Romanticism. An examination of Philip Freneau’s writing style and his philosophical influences

Term Paper, 2018

12 Pages, Grade: 1.0


The evolution of Philip Freneau’s poetry throughout his life signifies the transition from American Enlightenment writing to American Romantic writing. In poems such as “To Sir Toby,” Freneau incorporates a neoclassical style that demonstrates the primary characteristics of the American Enlightenment style, whereas in poems such as “The Wild Honeysuckle,” Freneau anticipates major aspects of the American Romantic movement. When the philosophical perspectives that were prevalent in America during the late eighteenth century are considered, Freneau’s status as a transitional poet can be appreciated on a deeper level. Through his incorporation of both neoclassical and romantic characteristics in poems such as “The Wild Honeysuckle,” Freneau represents the uncertain philosophical disposition of America during the late eighteenth century more authentically than a style defined strictly by neoclassicism or romanticism would achieve. Thus, the evolution of Freneau’s poetry from the neoclassicism of “To Sir Toby” to the more romantic style of “The Wild Honeysuckle” is best understood through a consideration of the competing philosophies of the Enlightenment period that influenced Freneau’s writing, in addition to the characteristics which provide each poem with qualities that signify a neoclassical or a romantic style.

In “To Sir Toby,” Freneau employs a style that is distinctively neoclassical. The poem concerns the dire conditions of slavery that Freneau observed on the island of Jamaica during his voyages throughout the West Indies from 1776 to 1778 (Bowden 15). With a sense of moral urgency, Freneau provides an accurate depiction of how the slaves are treated, seeking to inform his audience of the inhumane treatment they endure. In accord, the poem contains the neoclassical characteristics of didacticism and verisimilitude seen throughout American Enlightenment writing. “To Sir Toby,” as well as other poems by Freneau, are clearly influenced by the author Virgil, further demonstrating Freneau’s neoclassicism through representing the importance he places on the study of classical literature. Freneau’s references to Virgil are so common within his works that it “…would scarcely be profitable to catalogue the numerous Virgilian allusions that abound in the pages of America’s first considerable poet…The Roman poet is sometimes named, as in the line ‘Pictures of hell, that Virgil’s pencil drew (“To Sir Toby”)…” (Brown 32). Also, in “To Sir Toby” Freneau uses the form of heroic couplets seen frequently in Enlightenment writing, cementing the poem’s neoclassical style. However, the poem reveals Freneau’s growing skepticism of certain Enlightenment values, as well as his complicated relationship with the romantic view of nature.

In the first six lines of the poem, Freneau exposits the poem’s basic themes of the cruel treatment of slaves and the greed of their masters:

If there exists a hell--the case is clear--

Sir Toby's slaves enjoy that portion here:

Here are no blazing brimstone lakes, 'tis true;

But kindled Rum too often burns as blue,

In which some fiend, whom nature must detest, Cudjoe's breast (“To Sir Toby”).

Freneau characterizes Sir Toby to criticize the steadfast ambition towards the attainment of wealth admired by prominent thinkers of the Enlightenment. In Sir Toby’s pursuit of wealth, symbolized by the imagery of kindled rum, Sir Toby is willing to commit stunningly atrocious acts, such as the branding of human beings. Freneau continues his denunciation of human nature in line five, where he depicts nature as detesting the “fiend” which “Steeps Toby’s brand…” in apparent support of the idea that mankind is a corruptive influence upon the innocence of nature.

Such evidence suggests that the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau serves as an influence to the poem. Rousseau’s philosophy popularizes the notion of the noble savage, whose sense of morality arises from a deep connection with nature in spite of their naivete of civilization. Freneau scholars contend that Rousseau’s influence contributes to Freneau’s fondness of romantic values, stating, “A knowledge of Rousseau, — the father of romanticism — could easily have furthered his love of nature and his tendency to melancholy, as well as his love of the simple, the lowly, the naïve” (Clark, The Literary Influences 8). However, Freneau does not possess an in-depth understanding of Rousseau’s ideas until 1786 (Clark, The Literary Influences 8), approximately a decade after the time when he writes “To Sir Toby.” Nonetheless, Freneau almost certainly has at least a basic familiarity with Rousseau’s thought circa 1776, as according to Freneau scholars, “Although at a later period Freneau undoubtedly possessed a firsthand knowledge of Rousseau’s works, even by the early seventies he must have absorbed much of the eighteenth-century nature philosophy from his readings of countless authors who had felt the influence both of Rousseau’s thinking and of allied ideologies” (Adkins 20). Clearly, Freneau’s relative lack of expertise in the area of philosophy does not significantly curtail his familiarity with the prevailing ideas of the Enlightenment.

In spite of his apparent philosophical influences, Freneau’s view of nature in “To Sir Toby” is far less idealistic than that which Rousseau professes. In lines seven through twelve, Freneau presents a grotesque image of nature alongside images of the cruelties of slavery:

Here whips on whips excite perpetual fears,

And mingled howlings vibrate on my ears:

Here nature's plagues abound, to fret and teaze,

Snakes, scorpions, despots, lizards, centipedes-- (“To Sir Toby”).

Seemingly contradicting his prior assertion that nature detests the cruelties occurring on the island, Freneau views “nature’s plagues” as akin to the cruelties of human civilization, exemplified by “whips on whips” (“To Sir Toby”). To create a sense of disgust, Freneau deviates from iambic pentameter in line twelve, where an extra syllable is inserted with the word “centipedes” (“To Sir Toby”). This minor alteration makes line twelve sound unnaturally strained when spoken, allowing the grotesque imagery to have a deeper effect. Freneau’s perspective on nature is shown to be complicated, for in spite of his condemnation of the corruptive influence of humankind upon nature, Freneau does not entertain a wholly idealized conception of the natural world. This suggests that the ideas of the Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes are also an influence to Freneau, in spite of Hobbes’ view on nature being quite the opposite of Rousseau’s. Scholars of Freneau claim that he possesses a “dual view of nature” (Adkins 29), stating, “…Freneau represents the transitional outlook typical of the late eighteenth century. Standing midway between the neoclassic and romantic periods, he expressed himself now in terms of one era, now the other…he could still not wholly make up his mind whether Hobbes and other thinkers of an earlier era were not right in asserting that the state of nature is a ‘state of war’” (Adkins 29). Even though Freneau’s poetry evolved to express a more decidedly romantic view of nature, his stance on the philosophical issue of humankind’s relationship with nature remains somewhat ambiguous.

Despite his mixed feelings towards nature, Freneau is reliably skeptical towards the belief in the innate goodness of humankind. Such doubt was widespread among western minds during the eighteenth century. According to scholars of American philosophy, “The eighteenth century, with all its optimism, certainly did not fail to acknowledge the existence of evil in man. The need of the theodicy, which, as Professor Lovejoy has pointed out, the age felt so imperatively, implied the admission both of man’s innate sin and of nature’s malignancy” (Adkins 29). Whereas most Enlightenment thinkers pondered the problem of evil with a certain optimism concerning the future of civilization, Freneau was altogether lacking in such optimism, as shown in “To Sir Toby” in lines thirty-five through thirty-eight:

Driven by a devil, whom men call overseer--

In chains, twelve wretches to their labours haste;

Twice twelve I saw, with iron collars graced!--

Are such the fruits that spring from vast domains? (To Sir Toby”).

Freneau expresses his feeling of astonishment at the abhorrent conditions faced by the slaves, and exhibits a deep contempt for their overseer’s morality with the statement that the slaves are “Driven by a devil…” in line thirty-five (“To Sir Toby”). Alluding to the Garden of Eden, Freneau mocks Enlightenment optimism towards future social progress in line thirty-eight, questioning their belief in a prosperity which will arise for future generations when he asks, “Are such the fruits that spring from vast domains?” (“To Sir Toby”). Freneau elaborates this allusion to the Garden of Eden and the fall of man in lines forty-three through forty-six:

Talk not of blossoms and your endless spring;

What joy, what smile, can scenes of misery bring?--

Though Nature, here, has every blessing spread,

Poor is the labourer--and how meanly fed!-- (“To Sir Toby”).

By comparing Enlightenment optimism to an “endless spring”, Freneau disparages such hopes for unlimited progress as thoroughly naïve. Freneau believes that despite the plentitude of rewards to be found in nature, human nature will uphold longstanding social issues, such as the poverty and hunger Freneau laments in line forty-six. Through these essential verses of the poem, “…Freneau admits that the presence of man has destroyed Eden” (Bowden 52). By alluding to the Garden of Eden, “To Sir Toby” provides us with a better understanding of where Freneau stands regarding Enlightenment philosophy. It is certain that Freneau is at odds with philosophers such as Hobbes who assert that the state of nature is a state of war, considering that Freneau references the Garden of Eden, whose ultimate corruption is brought about by Adam’s decision to eat of the forbidden fruit. Thus, Freneau is much closer to Rousseau in his views, especially in how he considers civilization to be harmful to humankind through the inequalities it imposes, such as those Freneau laments in “To Sir Toby” regarding the institution of slavery. Still, in comparison to Freneau’s conception of nature as being capable of both good and evil, Rousseau’s view of nature as a source of salvation from civilization should be recognized as more radical.


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From Neoclassicism to Romanticism. An examination of Philip Freneau’s writing style and his philosophical influences
The Pennsylvania State University - Worthington Scranton
The American Literary Experience
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from, neoclassicism, romanticism, philip, freneau’s
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Alexander Kidd (Author), 2018, From Neoclassicism to Romanticism. An examination of Philip Freneau’s writing style and his philosophical influences, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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