For various reasons, tedious to those other than myself, I have recently become more invested in knowing the poetry of my own country and, in service of this end, purchased the Library of America two-volume collection of 19th century American poetry. This I have begun reading. I will try to comment on each poet in the volume, beginning today with the first, Philip Freneau. These responses will be gathered here.
The volume includes four poems from Freneau: “On the Civilization of the Western Aboriginal Country,” “On the Great Western Canal of the State of New York,” “To Mr. Blanchard, the Celebrated Aeronaut in America,” and “On the Conflagrations of Washington.” I am not likely to read any a second time. The main reason, I suppose, is that his poems feel only accidentally to be poetry. They are moralistic tales that happen to be conveyed in rime, that is all.
What I found most interesting in Freneau was not directly in his poetry, but in its relation to my prior reading. For Yoshida Kenkō, beauty and value lies in impermanence. The grandiose is an affront against style, is most worthy when the initial ambition is past, and the rot sets in. Freneau, by contrast, is utterly aloof to this mode of evaluation, as in his poem on the Great Western Canal. He may say, as he does in that poem, that “The child of Nature is the better man,” but he does not seem to believe it. His is a poetry for a country still in a time of expansion, of prospect. Perhaps, now that our country seems to be crumbling around us, we American poets will return to a poetry of impermanence. Time will tell.