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Monday, October 11, 2010

Joel Barlow, Joaquin Miller, Walt Whitman, Trumbull Stickney, Hart Crane, Robert Frost: poets appraise Columbus

Many poets have evoked Columbus over the years. In 1787 one of the “Hartford Wits,” thirty-four-year-old Joel Barlow, published his long epic poem The Vision of Columbus by subscription; his readers included George Washington and Thomas Paine. Twenty years later he revised it extensively and republished it as The Columbiad. In this excerpt Columbus first sees the New Land:
High moved the scene, Columbus gazed sublime,
And thus in prospect hail'd the happy clime:
Blest be the race my guardian guide shall lead
Where these wide vales their various bounties spread.
What treasured stores the hills must here combine!
In 1892 Joaquin Miller composed “Columbus” for the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America. For decades this poem, memorized by millions of schoolchildren, rivaled the Gettysburg Address in popularity. “Sail on” memorably closes each stanza, leading to the climax:
Then, pale and worn, he kept his deck,
    And peered through darkness. Ah, that night
Of all dark nights! And then a speck—
    A light! A light! A light! A light!
It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!
    It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.
He gained a world; he gave that world
    Its grandest lesson: “On! sail on!”
The same anniversary year moved Walt Whitman to write “Prayer of Columbus.” Here Columbus is not one of the heroic voyagers of Whitman’s 1870 “Passage to India” but “A BATTER’D, wreck’d old man” composing a last desperate prayer that isn’t answered until the last stanza:
And these things I see suddenly, what mean they?
As if some miracle, some hand divine unseal’d my eyes,
Shadowy, vast shapes, smile through the air and sky,
And on the distant waves sail countless ships,
And anthems in new tongues I hear saluting me.
Ten years later Trumbull Stickney would adopt a much more critical stance in a fifteen-line broadside:
You say, Columbus with his argosies
Who rash and greedy took the screaming main
And vanished out before the hurricane
Into the sunset after merchandise,
Then under western palms with simple eyes
Trafficked and robbed and triumphed home again:
You say this is the glory of the brain
And human life no other use than this?
I then do answering say to you: The line
Of wizards and of saviours, keeping trust
In that which made them pensive and divine,
Passes before us like a cloud of dust.
What were they? Actors, ill and mad with wine,
And all their language babble and disgust.
In the late 1920s Hart Crane found in Columbus’s journals the solution to how he would begin his epic 1930 poem, The Bridge. Columbus’s descriptions resonated with Crane’s own experiences of the Caribbean and in the “Ave Maria” section of The Bridge Columbus appears as one mystically redeemed by his first experience of the new continent:
I thought of Genoa; and this truth, now proved,
That made me exile in her streets, stood me
More absolute than eve—biding the moon
Till dawn should clear that dim frontier, first seen
—The Chan’s great continent . . . Then faith, not fear
Nigh surged me witless . . . Heaving the surf near—
I, wonder-breathing, kept the watch,—saw
The first palm chevron the first lighted hill.
In “America Is Hard to See” (1951), Robert Frost contrasts how as a youth he viewed Columbus when he would have “had Columbus sung / As a god who had given us / A more than Moses’ exodus.” Now older and more sardonic, he realizes:
But all he did was spread the room
Of our enacting out the doom
Of being in each other’s way,
And so put off the weary day
When we should have to put our mind
On how to crowd but still be kind.
Listen to N. Scott Momaday read “You say, Columbus with his argosies” in Segment Five of The Republic of Verse.

Related LOA works: Four Centuries of American Poetry (5 volumes); Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose; Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters; Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays

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