In 1492 – Columbus sailed the ocean blue

‘In 1492’ (Columbus sailed the ocean blue) is a poem written about an idealized vision of American history, specifically the moment that Columbus “discovered” the New World, what he thought was India. Within this piece, readers will come upon familiar phrases, like the first two lines, as well as some that try to work around the brutal and cruel aspects of this period in time. 

Some scholars attribute the first two lines of this piece to a different publication and author. But, nowadays, it’s common to see them connected to another thirteen couplets, therefore that’s the version of the poem that’s presented below. 

In 1492 - Columbus sailed the ocean blue

 

Summary

‘In 1492’ (Columbus sailed the ocean blue) is famous for its opening lines and its broader description of Columbus’ discovery of America.

In the first lines of ‘In 1492’ (Columbus sailed the ocean blue), the speaker begins with the lines that most American schoolchildren learn in order to remember the date that Columbus first stumbled upon the New World. The stanzas go on to describe the ships that arrived there, Columbus and his crew’s joy upon finding “Indians” and their meeting with the “Arakawa” natives. 

 

Structure and Form

‘In 1492’ (Columbus sailed the ocean blue) is a fourteen stanza poem that is made up of couplets or sets of two lines. These are all perfectly rhymed, meaning they follow a pattern of AABBCC, and so on. The lines also contain four sets of two beats, for a total of eight syllables per line. Repetition, an important literary device, is one of the reasons that this poem has such a solid rhyme scheme and feeling of rhythm. 

 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this piece, the poet, whoever they may be, uses several literary devices in order to make this piece memorable and even memorizable. These include repetition, anaphora, caesura, and enjambment. The latter, enjambment, is a formal device that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before the end of a phrase. For example, the transition between lines one and two of stanza four as well as the two lines of stanza twelve. 

Repetition is a broad literary device. It can appear when a poet uses a word, phrase, structure, or even a single consonant or vowel sound multiple times. Anaphora is one type of repetition, one that occurs when a word is repeated at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “He” at the start of all the lines in stanzas two and three. 

 

Analysis, Stanza by Stanza

Stanzas 1-3

In fourteen hundred ninety-two

Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

He had three ships and left from Spain;

(…)

He used the stars to find his way. 

In the first stanzas of ‘In 1492′ (Columbus sailed the ocean blue) the speaker uses the two lines that are recited by school children all around the United States. They recall the date Columbus set out to sail to the “New World.” They’re followed by a simple depiction of the wind, sun, and sea, as well as the ships he had with him. 

The first thing a reader will likely notice about these lines is that they’re quite simple. There are no complicated words or intricate imagery. This means that anyone, young and old, can understand them. This is emphasized by the fact that the poet chose to use such a consistent rhyme scheme in the piece. 

 

Stanzas 4-6

A compass also helped him know

How to find the way to go.

Ninety sailors were on board;

(…)

And others watched the ocean deep.

The poet continues on, narrating the journey, the work the crew did, and how endless the ocean seemed during that time period. In the sixth stanza, there is an example of alliteration with “workers,” “went,” and” watched.” There is also an example of half-rhyme with “Then” and “went.” 

 

Lines 7-9 

Day after day they looked for land;

They dreamed of trees and rocks and sand.

October 12 their dream came true,

(…)

His heart was filled with joyful pride.

The next section of three couplets announces that Columbus and his crew arrived at what they thought was India. Columbus called out “Indians!” in excitement over their arrival. The speaker suggests that Columbus felt prideful and joyful over his discovery of this new place. At this point, the speaker has been building up to their landing on the shore and meeting the native people. For contemporary students of history, this period in America is quite obviously far more complicated than this poem suggests. Nowadays, even in children’s poetry, a poet would likely be more sensitive to the fact that breezing over an important part of the historical record does no one any good. 

 

Lines 10-14

But “India” the land was not;

It was the Bahamas, and it was hot.

The Arakawa natives were very nice;

They gave the sailors food and spice.

Columbus sailed on to find some gold

(…)

But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.

It turned out that Columbus hadn’t found India but “the Bahamas” where it was “hot,” and the natives were nice. They gave the soldiers what they needed, and then Columbus went on to South American to “find some gold.” This was something he’d been told to do. These lines are added as though it’s a chore that he took no pleasure in. His great pleasure was discovering the new land and meeting the natives. 

In the last lines, the speaker adds that Columbus was “bright” even if he wasn’t “The first American.” It also contains an example of a caesura. 

 

Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘In 1492’ (Columbus sailed the ocean blue) should also consider reading These Yet to Be United Statesin which Maya Angelou reflects on the true nature of the United, or un-united, States of America. She taps into her personal history to fuel her speaker’s understanding of the world. On a lighter note, poets Shel Silverstein and Ogden Nash, along with Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, have written some of the best, thoughtful, and interesting poems for young and old readers in the English language. For example, Whatif’ by Shel Silverstein and The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ by Edward Lear. 

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