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The Wild Honey Suckle

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English Literature

For most, flowers typically symbolize beauty, vibrancy, Spring's rebirth, and even love. But to the speaker in Philip Freneau's 1786 'The Wild Honey Suckle,' the beautiful flower in front of him is a poignant reminder of his inevitable and ultimate death. Evoking a biblical allusion to Christianity's favorite garden and diving deep into the Romantic tradition, Freneau creates a poem about life, death, and the flash of years in between.

'The Wild Honey Suckle' at a Glance

Written By

Philip Freneau

Publication Date1786

Meter

Iambic Tetrameter

Rhyme Scheme

ABABCC

Poetic Devices

Personification

Imagery

Allusion

Symbolism

Hyperbole

Alliteration

Consonance

Frequently noted imagery

Honey'd blossoms

Little branches

Roving feet

Busy hand

White petals

Guardian shade

Soft water murmuring

Unpitying frosts

Morning suns

Evening dews

Tone

Reflective, gentle, yearning

Key themes

Time is Transient

The Beauty of Nature

Death and Decay

Meaning

Life is short and death is inevitable, but the world is full of beauty.


'The Wild Honey Suckle' by Philip Freneau

Philip Freneau, also known as "the poet of the American Revolution," wrote 'The Wild Honeysuckle' in Charleston, South Carolina in July of 1785. The poem was first published in the Freeman's Journal on August 2, 1786, and was republished in later editions of the journal with very few edits.

The poem differs drastically from Freneau's satirical poetry, which criticized political policies and social norms (like slavery) that Freneau disapproved of. In 'The Wild Honeysuckle,' however, Freneau's writing shifts towards Romanticism and lyricism. Freneau deeply appreciates the natural world around him, especially the wild honeysuckle, throughout the poem.

He uses the natural world around him to examine spiritual truths about life and beauty.

'The Wild Honey Suckle' text

Fair flower, that dost so comely grow,
Hid in this silent, dull retreat,
Untouched thy honey'd blossoms blow,
Unseen thy little branches greet:
No roving foot shall crush thee here,
No busy hand provoke a tear.
By Nature’s self in white arrayed,
She bade thee shun the vulgar eye,
And planted here the guardian shade,
And sent soft waters murmuring by;
Thus quietly thy summer goes,
Thy days declining to repose.
Smit with those charms, that must decay,
I grieve to see your future doom;
They died--nor were those flowers more gay,
The flowers that did in Eden bloom;
Unpitying frosts and Autumn’s power
Shall leave no vestige of this flower.
From morning suns and evening dews
At first thy little being came;
If nothing once, you nothing lose,
For when you die you are the same;
The space between is but an hour,
The frail duration of flower."

'The Wild Honey Suckle' summary

The speaker of the poem is admiring the beauty of a wild honeysuckle bush that he has stumbled upon. The flowers are lovely, and nature has provided the plant with everything it needs to flourish. There is plenty of shade and sunlight, water is close by, and the plant is hidden away where humans won't destroy it.

But, the speaker notes, the honeysuckle is still going to die someday. Autumn and cold winter frosts don't care how beautiful the flower is; its beauty will be destroyed by time and the changing seasons. The speaker compares the honeysuckle to flowers in the biblical Garden of Eden, saying the one before him now is just as fair.

He then uses that allusion to shift and reflect on the fate of all of humanity. Everyone will eventually die, leaving nothing at the end of time. Just as life started out from nothing, in death life becomes nothing once more. The speaker ends the poem by saying that in the grand scheme of things, each person only lives for a brief moment in time.

The Wild Honey Suckle, Image of the wild honeysuckle, StudySmarter

The speaker is moved by the beauty of the wild honeysuckle, pixabay

'The Wild Honey Suckle' literary criticism and analysis

'The Wild Honeysuckle' relies on a variety of literary devices in order to create a physical image of a beautiful flower while also conveying the deeper philosophical meanings behind the flower's brief lifespan. The poem is chiefly about the temporary beauty and vibrancy of life, which is inevitably destroyed by death.

Personification and imagery

The beginning of the poem is full of personification and imagery. The lines "Untouched thy honey'd blossoms blow, / Unseen thy little branches greet" paint a mental image of small branches filled with little blossoms of sweet-smelling flowers (3-4). Right from the first few lines, readers are drawn into the poem and feel as though they are gazing upon the bush of flowers along with the speaker.

The personification also starts in these lines when the speaker reflects that the lovely plant seems to "greet" its visitors, despite not getting very many in its secluded area. The honeysuckle is positioned as a cheery, vibrant picture of life and beauty.

The personification shifts in the second stanza to "Nature" who herself seemed to build the perfect environment for the flowers to grow in:

By Nature’s self in white arrayed,

She bade thee shun the vulgar eye,

And planted here the guardian shade,

And sent soft waters murmuring by;

Thus quietly thy summer goes,

Thy days declining to repose" (7-12).

Nature gave the plant everything it needed to thrive, including sun, shade, and water. She also dressed the honeysuckle up in white petals, so the plant itself represents a state of purity. It is exactly where it is supposed to be, doing exactly what it is supposed to do. But being handpicked by nature and in a state of grace doesn't save the honeysuckle from death.

The personification in the next stanza brings death and decay. Lines 17-18 read,

"Unpitying frosts and Autumn’s power

Shall leave no vestige of this flower."

The personification of frost and Autumn destroy the peaceful imagery and setting that Nature has worked to build in one fell swoop. It took 12 lines to build up the imagery of the flower and only two lines to destroy it.

Personification: attributing human qualities (characteristics, emotions, and behaviors) to nonhuman things.

Imagery: descriptive language that appeals to one of the five senses.

 The Wild Honey Suckle, Frost leaves no trace of the honeysuckle, StudySmarter

Frost leaves no trace of the once-vibrant honeysuckle, pixabay

Allusion

The speaker uses an allusion to the Garden of Eden to compare the wild honeysuckle's beauty to that of the flowers in God's paradise. He says,

They died—nor were those flowers more gay,(The flowers that did in Eden bloom)" (15-16).

This allusion also hints at why death is so inevitable and universal. In the Bible, humans were kicked out of the Garden of Eden for ignoring God's instructions and eating the forbidden fruit, cursing all life with death and disease. Freneau, whom biographers have labelled a deist, seems to be subtly critiquing Christianity's God for destroying such natural beauty in the name of punishing humans for their misdeeds.

Although the flowers are just like the ones in paradise and morally pure (as depicted in their white array), they are reduced to nothing in the frost of winter.

Allusion: a figure of speech in which a person, event, or thing is indirectly referenced with the assumption that the reader will be at least somewhat familiar with the topic.

Symbolism and hyperbole

Although the speaker starts the poem by talking specifically about the honeysuckle's beauty and inevitable death, after the allusion to the Garden of Eden, the flowers become a symbol for all of creation. The honeysuckle, like all living things, returns to nothing in death. The speaker reflects:

If nothing once, you nothing lose,For when you die you are the same;

The space between is but an hour,The mere idea of a flower" (21-24).

Life isn't actually condensed into 60 minutes, but hyperbole serves to show how fast time flies. The last couplet uses hyperbole and symbolism to capture the transient nature of time for all living things.

Symbolism: one person/place/thing is a symbol for, or represents, some greater value/idea.

Hyperbole: An extreme exaggeration not meant to be taken literally

The Wild Honey Suckle, An hour glass representing The time between life and death is short, StudySmarter

The speaker says that the moment between birth and death only lasts an hour, pixabay.com

Alliteration

Alliteration makes the poem more melodious, adding to the inherent beauty of nature. The speaker starts off with alliteration, addressing the honeysuckle as "fair flower" (1), His use of alliteration builds throughout the poem, making the natural elements sound more beautiful and in harmony with one another.

For example in line three, "blossoms blow," and in line 10 Nature "sent soft waters." The peaceful alliterations conclude in line 12 with "days declining." Similarly, line 12 signifies a shift from admiring the beauty of the honeysuckle to philosophizing over its death.

Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of a group of closely connected words.

Consonance

Consonance, on the other hand, is a prominent literary device when the speaker is discussing the honeysuckle's ultimate demise. The repetition of the "M" sound in line 13: "Smit with those charms, that must decay," shifts the focal point from the admiration of nature to the devastation of nature. The "M" sound is used to heighten the emotional significance of the poem, taking on the mournful tone of the speaker. The repetition of the "T" sound in line 17: "Unpitying frosts and Autumn’s power" creates a hard rhythm that conveys a sense of power and distance. While the speaker is mournful, death's power is indifferent to the loss of beauty.

Consonance: the recurrence of similar consonant sounds.

'The Wild Honey Suckle' themes and meaning

Time is transient & death is inevitable

The prevailing theme of the poem is that time is transient and living things only exist for a short period before dying. The honeysuckle will perish despite all of its advantages: it was cultivated by "Nature's self," (7) but it still cannot survive the "unpitying frosts and Autumn's power" (17).

It doesn't matter how vibrant, beautiful, or lucky living things are. In time, everything will succumb to death. The final couplet of the poem sums the transient nature of time up best:

The space between is but an hour,

The mere idea of a flower" (23-24).

But death, the speaker argues, isn't really a loss; it's more of a return. He says,

If nothing once, you nothing lose,

For when you die you are the same" (21-22).

Death and decay are inevitable aspects of life, but it's not necessarily something to fear. He says that living things come "From morning suns and evening dews" (19) and implies that we return to the same state after death. Death happens to everything, but it simply reverts living things back to the state they came from.

The beauty of nature

In the Romantic tradition, the speaker is attuned to the beauty of nature. Most importantly, the speaker appreciates the beauty of the honeysuckle for its own sake, not because of what it can give to human beings. He says,

Fair flower, that dost so comely grow,Hid in this silent, dull retreat,Untouch’d thy honey’d blossoms blow,Unseen thy little branches greet" (1-4).

He finds joy simply in observing the honeysuckle and how nature seemed to position it perfectly so it would have the best chance at life.

Furthermore, the speaker is delighted that the honeysuckle is away from humans, where "No roving foot shall crush thee here, / No busy hand provoke a tear" (5-6). As opposed to other humans who enjoy nature for what it can provide to them, the speaker here just appreciates it for its own beauty. Throughout the poem, there is no mention of machinery or human influence. Even the antagonist is natural: frost, autumn, and time.

The Wild Honey Suckle - Key takeaways

  • 'The Wild Honey Suckle' was written by American poet Philip Freneau in 1786.
  • The poem features a speaker who stumbles upon a honeysuckle and deeply appreciates its beauty.
  • The poem shifts near the middle and becomes much more philosophical, as the speaker laments the honeysuckle's inevitable death with the frost and how death is unavoidable for all of creation.
  • The speaker uses the timeframe of an hour to show how fast things are born and die.
  • Themes in the poem include time is transient, death and decay, and the beauty of nature.

The Wild Honey Suckle

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

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

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

Themes include Time is Transient, The Beauty of Nature, and Death and Decay.

The poet knows that the honey suckle will soon be killed by Autumn's frost. Even though it is beautiful, it will die. 

Final The Wild Honey Suckle Quiz

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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Question

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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Question

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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Question

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. 

Show question

Question

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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Question

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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Question

What is the main allusion in the poem? 

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Answer

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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Question

What literary devices are used in the poem? 

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Answer

Personification

Imagery

Allusion

Symbolism

Hyperbole

Alliteration

Consonance

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Question

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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