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Philip Freneau

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English Literature

Philip Freneau

Known as the "poet of the American Revolution," Philip Freneau not only wrote about the war that gave the United States its independence from Britain, he also fought and almost died in it. From his friendships with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to his rivalry with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, Freneau is now a relatively obscure poet whose contributions to American history and literature are drastically underrepresented.

Philip Freneau Biography

The oldest of five children, Philip Freneau was born to a family of deeply religious wine merchants in 1752. He was raised in New Jersey, attending the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) to become a minister. His roommate was James Madison, and while in college Freneau became deeply interested in both literature and politics. He graduated in 1771 and tried teaching, but quickly gave it up.

As the American Revolutionary War approached and tensions mounted, Freneau wrote a series of anti-British satires. He left the United States in 1776 and travelled to the West Indies, where he spent his time learning navigation and writing poetry. It was during this transitory period that Freneau wrote much of his longest poems, focusing on his natural surroundings and writing satire on the cruelty of slavery.

He returned to the United States in 1778, joined the militia, and served as sea captain on a privateer ship. He was captured by British forces and held as a prisoner of war for 6 weeks. He nearly died during this time, and recorded the experience in his long poem The British Prison Ship. After this experience, he became much more outspoken about British oppression throughout the revolution and after. His patriotic, anti-British works earned him the title "Poet of the American Revolution."

Philip Freneau, Prisoner of War, studysmarter

One of Freneau's most well-known poems, The British Prison Ship, details his experience as a prisoner of war when his ship was captured by British forces, pixabay.com

After the war, Freneau married and published two poetry collections, The Poems of Philip Freneau, Written Chiefly During the Late War in 1786, and The Miscellaneous Works of Mr. Philip Freneau in 1788. Thomas Jefferson admired Freneau's political writing style and, along with James Madison, convinced Freneau to move to Philadelphia.

There, Jefferson and Madison helped Freneau to found and edit The National Gazette, an anti-Federalist newspaper that promoted Jefferson's policies. Jefferson also hired Freneau as a translator in the State Department, which was controversial as the only foreign language Freneau knew was French.

Freneau used his position as editor of The National Gazette to criticize Federalist policies and political figures. He specifically attacked both Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, leading to Washington calling him "that rascal Freneau." Hamilton accused Freneau of being Jefferson's tool rather than a free-thinking intellectual, which Freneau and Jefferson both denied.

Philip Freneau, Letters, StudySmarter

Freneau is known for founding The National Gazette, and using his position as editor to criticize Federalist politics and praise the Democratic Republicans, pixabay.com

After Jefferson resigned from Secretary of State in 1793, Freneau left The National Gazette, editing a few small newspapers before retiring to his farm in New Jersey. He lived to be 80 years old, eventually freezing to death in Matawan, New Jersey in 1832.

Freneau's Poetry and Writing Style

Overall, Freneau's poetry is most defined by the intersection of Neoclassical and Romantic traditions. In his writings, he used these traditions to complement his style of poetry as a form of self-reflection and collaboration. His poetry focuses on topics like politics, the natural world, Native Americans, and naval battles.

Freneau's political poetry differs deeply from his nature poetry. As a political poet, Freneau relies heavily on satire, using dry humor to ridicule his opponents. Whether he was condemning British influence in the United States, advocating for the abolishment of slavery, or criticizing his Federalist political opponents, Freneau was deeply satiric. He went head to head with many of his political rivals, including Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, exposing their vices and ridiculing their political policies.

Freneau's nature poetry, on the other hand, focuses on lyricism and the American landscape. In these poems, Freneau tended more towards the Romantic tradition, exploring and marveling at the natural world around him. This can be seen in poems like 'The Wild Honeysuckle' (1786), 'May to April' (1787), and 'On the Religion of Nature' (1815).

Philip Freneau Poems

Let us take a look at some poems by Philip Freneau

'The Wild Honey Suckle' (1786)

The speaker of this poem is talking to a beautiful honey suckle, which has grown in a spot off the beaten path. Away from humans, the honey suckle is free to flourish in the calm silence where it has the perfect mix of shade, water, and protection. The speaker thinks the honey suckle is lovely, planted "by Nature's self."

But then the speaker laments how the honey suckle will decay one day. He compares these flowers to the one in Eden, saying that he's sure these ones are just as beautiful, and it's a shame that this flower has to die while those lived forever. Expanding the metaphor, he compares the flower to every living organism that will eventually die. He says that all living things return to their original state in death, and human life is as short as a flower's. Themes include beauty, death, and the transient status of life.

Philip Freneau, Honeysuckle, Studysmarter

A wild honeysuckle with flowers blooming in the sun, pixabay.com

The British Prison Ship (1781)

The British Prison Ship is a long poem, comprised of three (or four, as the poem was revised six times) cantos, that details Freneau's firsthand account of being captured and kept as a prisoner on a British prison ship during the American Revolutionary War.

The poem starts when the Aurora, Freneau's ship, and the Iris, a British ship, sighted one another. A chase ensued as the Aurora attempted to flee. When the crew of the Aurora realized that they wouldn't be able to escape, they briefly fought back, but the Aurora was struck with a cannon and began to fill with water. The captain of Marines was shot and the ship captured.

Freneau was imprisoned on the Scorpion, one of the most notorious British prison ships of the war. The prisoners were treated horridly and Freneau wrote that death would have been a better fate than imprisonment. The air was foul and the prisoners were forced to lay in shackles. The poem recounts an unsuccessful prison break followed by a sickness that spread throughout the ship.

Freneau fell ill and was transferred to a hospital boat, but he was not treated any better. Two to three of his fellow prisoners died every day and other prisoners had to bury them on land. The poem ends rather abruptly with the speaker imploring the Americans to remember the prisoners of war and defeat the British for them.

'The Indian Burial Ground' (1787)

The speaker of the poem is observing a Native American burial, where the deceased are buried sitting upright instead of lying down. He praises the tradition and says that even though the majority of Europeans believe themselves to be superior to Native Americans, he actually thinks the "civilized" Europeans could learn much from Native American customs.

Native Americans bury their dead in a seated position, believing that their deceased live on in a separate world that is an extension of their life. The Christian Europeans, on the other hand, see death as an impersonal final end. They bury their departed lying down in an eternal sleep and set cold memorial stones on top of the grave.

Philip Freneau, Nature, StudySmarter

Freneau's speaker admires Native American groups that bury their dead in a seated position to reflect that death is an extension of life, pixabay.com

The speaker argues in favor of the mystical, open relationship that Native Americans have with death as an extension of life instead of the formal, terminal relationship that Europeans have with death. At the end of the poem, the speaker says that reason should "bow the knee / To shadows and delusions here," meaning that rationalism needs to give in to the imagination in death. Themes in the poem include death, life after death, and open-mindedness to other ideas.

'Emancipation from British Dependence' (1775)

Freneau was deeply critical of British influence in the American colonies. Leading up to and following the Revolutionary War, he wrote many satirical pieces that were anti-British. 'Emancipation from British Dependence' was one such poem. The speaker in this poem lists in detail all of the reasons that he abhors the British and advocates for American independence.

Freneau positions the British as a country full of greed, corruption, and anti-freedom sentiments. The poem is bitterly humorous with lines such as "Whom, if Heaven pleases, we'll give bloody noses" (12) and "What the devil care we where the devil he goes" (24). Adding to the satirical elements, everyone who supports the British are depicted as "stupid" and "slaves that would die for a smile from the throne" (18).

Philip Freneau - Key Takeaways

  • Philip Freneau was an important poet who wrote about the Revolutionary War and the tensions that led to the United States fighting for its independence.
  • Freneau went to college with James Madison, where he became interested in politics and literature.
  • He served as a privateer during the Revolutionary War, but was captured by the British and kept as a prisoner for 6 weeks. He details his experience in his long poem The British Prison Ship.
  • After the war, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison helped Freneau to found The National Gazette, which Freneau used to criticize Jefferson's political opponents, including George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.
  • Freneau wrote both political poetry and nature poetry, and the two drastically differ.

Philip Freneau

Philip Freneau was one of the first poets in America who significantly contributed to literary circles. He is often called "the poet of the American Revolution" as he recorded his experience in the war through his poetry and manuscript accounts. 

Freneau froze to death after falling in the snow on his way home. He was 80.

Freneau wrote poetry that depicted the United State's path towards freedom. He is one of the first American poets who significantly contributed to the literary world. He also wrote many anti-British satires and after the war was one of the loudest voices in opposing Hamilton and Washington's politics, as he served as a voice for Jeffersonian politics.  

Freneau was the editor of The National Gazette, an anti-federalist newspaper. He was a Democratic Republican and actively supported Jefferson and Madison. 

Freneau wrote many pieces criticizing the cruelty of slavery during his time in the West Indies. Later in life, he was an outspoken supporter of the abolition of slavery. 

Final Philip Freneau Quiz

Question

Who was Philip Freneau? 

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Answer

Philip Freneau was one of the first poets in America who significantly contributed to literary circles. He is often called "the poet of the American Revolution" as he recorded his experience in the war through his poetry and manuscript accounts. 

Show question

Question

What was significant about Freneau's time in college? 

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Answer

Freneau originally went to college to be a minister, but he quickly became interested in politics due to his roommate James Madison. It was also during college that Freneau developed a passion for writing. 

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Question

Why is Philip Freneau important? 


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Answer

Freneau wrote poetry that depicted the United State's path towards independence. He is one of the first American poets who significantly contributed to the literary world. He also wrote many anti-British satires and after the war was one of the loudest voices in opposing Hamilton and Washington's politics, as he served as a voice for Jeffersonian politics.  

Show question

Question

What happened to Freneau during the war? 

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Answer

Freneau joined the militia and served as a privateer. His ship was captured by a British ship and he spent six months as a prisoner of war abroad a British prison ship. He recorded that experience in his poem the British Prison Ship. 

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What did Freneau do after the war? 

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Answer

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison convinced Freneau to move to Philadelphia, where he founded The National Gazette, a paper that criticized Federalist politics and praised Republican ones. 

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What political enemies did Freneau make?

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Answer

Both Alexander Hamilton and George Washington disliked Freneau. 

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Question

What kind of poetry did Freneau write?

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Answer

He wrote mostly political poetry and nature poetry. He wrote about a lot of topics such as Native Americans, the natural American landscape, British oppression of the American colonies, slavery, naval battles, and more. 

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What was Freneau's writing style? 

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Freneau's style was a mix of Romantic and neoclassical. 

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What are Freneau's most famous works? 

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Answer

'The Wild Honeysuckle'

The British Prison Ship

'The Indian Burial Ground' 

'Emancipation from British Dependence'

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Question

How did Freneau die? 

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Answer

He froze to death after falling in the snow. He was 80.

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Question

Who wrote 'The Wild Honey Suckle'? 

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Answer

American poet Philip Freneau wrote 'The Wild Honey Suckle' in 1786. 

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What is the author of 'The Wild Honey Suckle' known for? 

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Answer

Freneau is known for both his nature poetry (of which 'The Wild Honey Suckle' is an example) and his political satires. 

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What era was 'The Wild Honey Suckle' written in? 


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Answer

The Wild Honey Suckle' was written shortly after the United States won its independence from Great Britain following the American Revolutionary War. 

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What is the meaning of 'The Wild Honey Suckle'? 


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Answer

'The Wild Honey Suckle' depicts how life is short and death is inevitable, but the world is full of beauty. 

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What are the themes in 'The Wild Honey Suckle'? 

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Answer

Themes include: 

Time is Transient

The Beauty of Nature

Death and Decay.

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Question

What does the speaker initially think of the wild honey suckle?  


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Answer

He thinks that the flowers are lovely and he is glad that it is growing in an out-of-the-way spot where humans won't damage it.

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Who does the speaker say grew the honey suckle? 

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Answer

He says that Nature herself grew the honeysuckle, making sure it had both sun and shade and putting water nearby. 

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What is the main allusion in the poem? 

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The speaker says that the honeysuckle in front of him is just as beautiful and cheerful (or "gay" in the poem) as the flowers in the Garden of Eden 

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What literary devices are used in the poem? 

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Personification

Imagery

Allusion

Symbolism

Hyperbole

Alliteration

Consonance

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What kind of poetry does 'The Wild Honey Suckle' tend towards? 

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Answer

This poem tends towards Romanticism in the appreciation of nature and in the ways that the speaker finds out universal truths about life and death through the natural world. 

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What is 'The Indian Burial Ground'? 

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Answer

It is a poem written by American poet Philip Freneau in 1787. 

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How does 'The Indian Burial Ground' compare to other works at that time?

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Answer

Freneau was more liberal than most of his contemporaries and wrote pieces advocating for the abolishment of slavery. This piece depicts Native Americans in a good light. 

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What is interesting about  'The Indian Burial Ground' as an American poem? 

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Answer

It was one of the first poems in American history that was pro-Native Americans. 

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What is  'The Indian Burial Ground' about? 

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Answer

It is about Native American burial customs and European burial customs. The Native Americans bury their dead in a seated position as an extension of life. Europeans bury their dead lying down like an eternal sleep. 

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What does the speaker think of Native American funeral customs?

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Answer

He thinks the spiritual components are more beneficial than the rationality that Europeans approach death with. He thinks the Europeans can learn a lot from the Native Americans. 

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What does burying the dead in a seated position do? 

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Answer

It enables them to exhibit the same active properties that they did in death and depicts death as an extension of life. Instead of sleeping forever, they are active in death, hunting and feasting and thriving. 

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What distinction does the speaker make between the Native Americans and the Europeans?

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Answer

He refers to the Europeans are "learned" and the Native Americans as "the ruder race." But instead of affirming stereotypes of that time, he uses the labels as a slight satire to show how Native Americans are more advanced in some ways than their European counterparts. 

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What kind of relationship do the Native Americans have with nature? 

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Answer

They are deeply interconnected to nature. They rely on nature and respect it, and in death they become one with nature, living on in the natural world. 

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What does the speaker suggest at the end of the poem? 

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He says reason should bend a knee to the shadows and delusion. Essentially, he says that spirituality and the mystical will get you farther in death. Reason won't help you in the afterlife, so you might as well give in to the otherworldly. 

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What are the major themes in the poem? 

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Answer

Death and the Afterlife

Diversity of Ideas

Nature and Humankind

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Question

What is 'Emancipation from British Dependence'?

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Answer

It is a 1775 poem written by American poet Philip Freneau

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Who wrote  'Emancipation from British Dependence'? 

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Answer

American poet Philip Freneau wrote this poem. He is considered "the poet of the American Revolutionary War" because of his anti-British satire writings. 

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What kind of poem is  'Emancipation from British Dependence'?

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Answer

It is an anti-British satire that was written to condemn British influence in the colonies.

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How is  'Emancipation from British Dependence' formatted? 

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Answer

It is formatted like a litany, where the speaker address God and repeats his petitions. 

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What is the main message behind  'Emancipation from British Dependence'? 

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Answer

British influence is oppressive and does not want what's best for the colonies. If the American colonies want to be free they need to disunite from Britain. 

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Why is this poem harder for a 21st century reader to understand?

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Answer

Freneau used a lot of allusions to people who he considered enemies of freedom. Most of the poems contain the last names of the colonial governors, the British Prime minister, and captains in the Royal Navy. Without knowing who those people are the poem is slightly hard to understand. 

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What is the tone of  'Emancipation from British Dependence'? 

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The tone is informal, hostile, aggressive, and snide. 

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What was significant about the time  'Emancipation from British Dependence' was written? 

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Answer

It was written in 1775. This was in the middle of the greatest tensions between the British and the colonies. They want to war the next year in 1776 after the Declaration of Independence. 

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How does the speaker position his enemies? 

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He depicts them as ignorant, passive, foolish scoundrels and brutes. 

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What are the major themes in  'Emancipation from British Dependence'? 

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Answer

Freedom vs. Oppression

Fighting for One's Beliefs

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Question

Who wrote 'The British Prison Ship'? 

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Answer

Philip Freneau wrote 'The British Prison Ship.' 

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When was 'The British Prison Ship' published?

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Answer

It was published in 1781. It was during the American Revolutionary War, two years before the US won its independence. 

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What is 'The British Prison Ship' about? 

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Answer

'The British Prison Ship' details Freneau's own time as a prisoner of war aboard a British prison ship. The ships were notoriously unsanitary, dangerous, and inhumane. 11,000 Americans died aboard these ships. 

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Why were conditions aboard prison ships so bad? 

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Answer

American rebels were considered domestic terrorists, not prisoners of war, until 1781. The British prison ships are actually why there are laws in place to protect prisoners of war to this day. 

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How does 'The British Prison Ship' start? 

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Answer

The poem starts on a light note with a bright sunny morning. The tone quickly changes, however, when the speaker's ship and a British ship sight one another and a fight ensues. The Aurora tried to flee, but was captured by the British.  

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Question

What are some major literary devices used in the poem? 

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Answer

'The British Prison Ship' employs allusion, figure of speech, alliteration, personification, and consonance the most. 

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Question

What affect does allusion have?

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Answer

Since the speaker relies so heavily on Greek gods, it could show that he his faith in Christianity is threatened by the horrors he faces. Freneau was a deist later in life. The use of allusions to Greek mythology also shows that the conditions are so deplorable even the heroes wouldn't be able to survive. 

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Question

What does personification do? 

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Answer

Personification turns, not just the prison ship, but also the speaker's own body and the familiar into antagonistic forces. He can no longer trust his body or the sunrise for fear it might turn against him.

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Question

What happens on the hospital ship? 

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Answer

The hospital ship is not any better than the prison ship. The doctor is an incompetent foreigner who kills many of his patients. At least three Americans die every day, and the prisoners have to bury them. 

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What happens at the end of the poem? 

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Instead of detailing his release (and Freneau was released in real life), the speaker calls on future generations of Americans to remember the prisoners of war. He says they must keep their resentment against anyone who threatens their freedom and remember what their oppressors did to them. 

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