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
Frequently noted imagery
(Video) Swale Pathway, Wild Honeysuckle and Sad News
Soft water murmuring
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Reflective, gentle, yearning
Time is Transient
The Beauty of Nature
Death and Decay
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
'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 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.
Frost leaves no trace of the once-vibrant honeysuckle, pixabay
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 speaker says that the moment between birth and death only lasts an hour, pixabay.com
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, 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.
What is the meaning of the wild honeysuckle? ›
Themes and critical response. The poem describes a secluded honeysuckle and makes observations about mortality. Paul Elmer More praised the "unearthly loveliness" of Freneau's "The Wild Honey Suckle" but noted that "even a clever journeyman's hand could alter a word here and there for the better."What does the sight of the honeysuckle make the poet sad? ›
The speaker then admits that he has become enamored by the "charms" of this little flower, and he then turns quite melancholy because this flower must "decay." Knowing that the flower is doomed to a short existence, he begins to "grieve" at the future prospect of the flower's life ending.When was the wild honeysuckle written? ›
Written in Charleston, S. C., in July, 1786. It appeared first in the Freeman's Journal, August 2, 1786, and was republished in the edition of 1788, and in the later editions, almost without change.What role according to freneau does nature play in the life of the wild honeysuckle? ›
Freneau shows an "enlightenment" belief that nature shows us revelations of who we are and what we should do, not God. Nature is open to everyone, and there is no mystery or secret. One need only seek out answers in nature (419).What is the theme of the poem the Indian burying ground? ›
“The Indian Burying Ground” is a poem about the admirable ways of Native Americans, here viewed essentially as “noble savages,” a fairly common eighteenth century idea, as exemplified in their custom of burying the dead in a sitting position symbolic of their pristine vitality in life and for eternity.What is on the religion of nature about? ›
In Freneau's poem “On the Religion of Nature”, is motivational and insightful. It encourages readers to see a bigger picture. It's not just about the beauty you can find in nature, it is about the religion and peace you can find in it as well.What are the qualities of nature as a religion according to freneau? ›
Freneau has the view that nature makes us good and evil comes from elsewhere. And that can make their heaven below" (13-18). Our leaving the natural system lead us into sophistic arguments on systems of religion.What was Philip Freneau known for? ›
Philip Freneau, in full Philip Morin Freneau, (born Jan. 2, 1752, New York, N.Y. [U.S.]—died Dec. 18, 1832, Monmouth county, N.J., U.S.), American poet, essayist, and editor, known as the “poet of the American Revolution.”Was Philip Freneau a soldier? ›
In 1776 Freneau travelled to the West Indies, where he studied navigation and wrote, largely about his surroundings. In 1778 he returned to New Jersey, joined the militia, and served as a ship's captain. He was eventually captured by the British and spent six weeks on a prison ship.Why does the speaker disagree with native burial customs? ›
Why does the speaker disagree with native burial customs? The speaker believes that death is an eternal sleep.
What are the form and devices used in the poem the Indian burying ground? ›
Forms and Devices
“The Indian Burying Ground” is a lyric poem consisting of ten quatrains with alternating end rhymes. The prevailing meter is iambic tetrameter with variations. A lyric poem tends to be a simple evocation of a single, simple experience and/or emotion, and such is this poem's aim and achievement.
A pagan, on the other hand, is “a member of a religious, spiritual, or cultural community based on the worship of nature or the earth.” Wicca, therefore, is a subsect that falls into the larger category of paganism.What is the faith in nature called? ›
nature worship, system of religion based on the veneration of natural phenomena—for example, celestial objects such as the sun and moon and terrestrial objects such as water and fire.What is earth worship called? ›
Earth-centered religion or nature worship is a system of religion based on the veneration of natural phenomena. It covers any religion that worships the earth, nature, or fertility deity, such as the various forms of goddess worship or matriarchal religion.Why did the Puritans fear the forest? ›
New England Puritans believed that the wilderness was the natural habitat of the devil. Since Native-Americans belonged to the wilderness, their familiarity with the ways of the devil seemed obvious to the settlers.Who has written the poem on the religion of nature? ›
The Religion of Nature Delineated is a book by Anglican cleric William Wollaston that describes a system of ethics that can be discerned without recourse to revealed religion. It was first published in 1722, two years before Wollaston's death.Which understanding of the sacred sees nature itself is holy? ›
The sacred reality is to viewed as having personal attributes but is more like an energy or mysterious power within the universe. (In Greek: all divine) Sees the sacred as being discoverable within the physical world and its process. In other words, nature itself is holy.Who is American father poem? ›
The U.S. Postal Service is honoring the 200th anniversary of the birth of Walt Whitman with a new stamp in its Literary Arts series, "commemorating the life, work and words of the poet some revere as the 'Father of Modern American Poetry,' at his Long Island birthplace."Who is the poet of the revolution in the Philippines? ›
José Rizal was a prolific Filipino author, poet and playwright who advocated political reform during Spanish rule in the late 1800s. His writings were denounced by Spanish rulers (who declared Rizal an enemy of the state) and helped inspire the Philippine Revolution.How did the American Revolution impact the French Revolution? ›
The Americans' victory over the British may have been one of the greatest catalysts for the French Revolution. The French people saw that a revolt could be successful—even against a major military power–and that lasting change was possible. Many experts argue that this gave them the motivation to rebel.
What is the US Army Soldiers Creed? ›
I am a Warrior and a member of a team. I serve the people of the United States, and live the Army Values. I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat.
The incident at the North Bridge later was memorialized by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1837 poem “Concord Hymn,” whose opening stanza is: “By the rude bridge that arched the flood/Their flag to April's breeze unfurled/Here once the embattled farmers stood/And fired the shot heard round the world.”When was the poem The American soldier written? ›
It was published in 1915 in the book 1914 and Other Poems.Does pantheism believe in God? ›
pantheism, the doctrine that the universe conceived of as a whole is God and, conversely, that there is no God but the combined substance, forces, and laws that are manifested in the existing universe.What is the study of the meaning and nature of religion? ›
Philosophy of religion is the philosophical study of the meaning and nature of religion. It includes the analyses of religious concepts, beliefs, terms, arguments, and practices of religious adherents. The scope of much of the work done in philosophy of religion has been limited to the various theistic religions.What is the reason for the man worship the forces of nature? ›
In earlier times when man appeared on earth, he was over-awed at the sight of violent and powerful aspects of nature. In certain cases, the usefulness of different natural objects of nature overwhelmed man. Thus began the worship of forces of nature – fire, the sun, the rivers, the rocks, the trees, the snakes etc.Is there a religion that worships nature? ›
Nature worship is often considered the primitive source of modern religious beliefs and can be found in theism, panentheism, pantheism, deism, polytheism, animism, totemism, shamanism, paganism,Saridharam and sarnaism.