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“ Yonder comes the Charming Sally
Sailing with the General Greene
Taking her is taking them:
Bearing down with all her sail
To take her we cannot fail." However interesting such verse may be historically, it is not of the kind which rises above the dust of the centuries. Now and then, however, Freneau struck a note different from this, and different on the whole from any which had previously been sounded in America. His most generally recognised poem is that on “ The Indian Burying-Ground,” to which attention has been called by the fact that Thomas Campbell, in “ O'Connor's Child,” stole one of its lines. Campbell's verse runs as follows :
Bright as the bow that spans the storm,
In Erin's vesture clad,
He comes and makes her glad.
His tasselled horn beside him laid;
- a shade." Freneau's poem is worth quoting in full:
“In spite of all the learned have said,
I still my old opinion keep;
Points out the soul's eternal sleep.
“Not so the ancients of these lands;
The Indian, when from life released,
And shares again the joyous feast.
“ His imaged birds, and painted bowl,
And venison, for a journey dressed,
Activity, that wants no rest.
“ His bow for action ready bent,
And arrows, with a head of stone,
And not the old ideas gone.
“ Thou, stranger, that shalt come this way,
No fraud upon the dead commit,
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
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 and the deer - a shade!
“And long shall timorous Fancy see
The painted chief and pointed spear.
To shadows and delusions here."
In the genuineness and simplicity of these verses, there is true beauty. In the opening thought, that it were better for the alert dead to sit than to lie drowsing, – that Hic sedet were a better epitaph than Hic jacet, - there is something really imaginative. And in the pensive melancholy with which Freneau records the rock-tracings of the vanished natives of America, there is likeness to the motive of a poem which twelve years before Freneau died permanently enriched English literature. This is John Keats's “ Ode to a Grecian Urn,” published in 1820:
“ Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve;
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair ! "
Here, of course, is no such plagiarism as that of Campbell, who stole a whole line of Freneau's; no such plagiarism, either, as that of Sir Walter Scott, who stole another; nor yet such as that still more unprincipled one which Professor Tyler records, where an English lady printed as her own a poem of Freneau in full. It may fairly be doubted whether Keats ever saw a line of Freneau's, or ever heard his name. The contrast between Freneau's “ Indian Burying-Ground" and Keats's “Grecian Urn" is worth our attention only because both poets had a similar motive. Freneau expressed it simply, directly, and even beautifully; Keats expressed it immortally. The contrast is one between good literature and great, between the very best that America had produced in the closing years of the eighteenth century and one of the many excellent things which England produced during the first twenty years of the century that followed. Taken by itself, “ The Indian Burying-Ground” may fairly excite our patriotic enthusiasm to an excessive degree ; a comparison with the “Grecian Urn” may recall our patriotism to the limits of common-sense.
The literature produced in this country between the outbreak of the American Revolution and the close of the
eighteenth century may fairly be typified, if not precisely summarised, by what we have glanced at, – the writings of those orators and public men who reached their highest expression in the “ Federalist,” the conscious and imitative effort of the Hartford Wits, and the sporadic poetry of Philip Freneau.
We have now glanced at the literary history of America during the first two centuries of American existence. In the seventeenth century, the
century of immigration, when Americans felt themselves truly to be emigrant Englishmen, they expressed themselves only in such theological and historical work as may be typified by the “ Magnalia” of Cotton Mather. During the eighteenth century, the century of independence, when Americans felt themselves still Englishmen, but with no personal ties to England, America produced in literature a theology which ran to metaphysical extremes, such vigorous common sense as one finds in the varied works of Franklin, and such writings as we have glanced at since. These two centuries added to English literature the names of Shakspere, Milton, Dryden, Swift, Addison, Pope, Johnson, and Burns. To match these names in America we can find none eminent than those of Cotton Mather, Edwards, Franklin, the writers of the “ Federalist,” the Hartford Wits, and Freneau. As we have seen, the history of England during these two centuries was that of a steadily developing and increasing national experience. In comparison, the history of America reveals national inexperience. There is no need for further emphasis on the commonplace that lack of experience does not favour literary or artistic expression.