This less-commonly read poem is based on readers’ prior understanding of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to India and his eventual arrival in North America. The poem never mentions Columbus by name, except in the title. This means that readers need to fill in any blanks about who the poem is about and where they are traveling to and from. Luckily, the poem is written in clear, easy-to-understand language that makes figuring out the context very easy.
Columbus Cincinnatus Hiner Miller, a.k.a. his pen name Joaquin MillerBehind him lay the gray Azores,Behind the Gates of Hercules;Before him not the ghost of shores,Before him only shoreless seas.The good mate said: "Now we must pray,For lo! the very stars are gone.Brave Admiral, speak, what shall I say?""Why, say, 'Sail on! sail on! and on!' ""My men grow mutinous day by day;My men grow ghastly wan and weak."The stout mate thought of home; a sprayOf salt wave washed his swarthy cheek."What shall I say, brave Admiral, say,If we sight naught but seas at dawn?""Why, you shall say at break of day,'Sail on! sail on! and on!' "They sailed and sailed, as winds might blow,Until at last the blanched mate said:"Why, now not even God would knowShould I and all my men fall dead.These very winds forget their way,For God from these dead seas is gone.Now speak, brave Admiral, speak and say" —He said, "Sail on! sail on! and on!"They sailed. They sailed. Then spake the mate:"This mad sea shows his teeth tonight.He curls his lip, he lies in wait,With lifted teeth, as if to bite!Brave Admiral, say but one good word:What shall we do when hope is gone?"The words leapt like a leaping sword:"Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!"Then pale and worn, he kept his deck,And peered through darkness. Ah, that nightOf all dark nights! And then a speck —A light! a light! at last a light!It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!It grew to be Time's burst of dawn.He gained a world; he gave that worldIts grandest lesson: "On! sail on!"
‘Columbus’ by Joaquin Miller describes Columbus’ voyage to the “New World.”
The poem is contained within one long stanza and focuses on the struggle Columbus’ crew endured during what he believed was a voyage to India. The poet focuses on describing how tough the voyage was for the various crew members, all of whom had given up hope of ever reaching their destination.
Despite their discomfort and general misery, Christopher Columbus refused to turn the ship around. He persevered and the face of hardship and made what is commonly considered to be the greatest discovery in the history of exploration.
Who was Christopher Columbus?
Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer and navigator. He set sail in 1492 on a mission sponsored by the Spanish Crown to find a route to India. He made four voyages to the Caribbean and South America, discovering a new world previously unknown to Europeans.
His legacy is controversial, as his voyage marked the beginning of centuries of exploitation of indigenous peoples. However, his voyages changed the world, opening up a new era of exploration and cultural exchange.
Structure and Form
‘Columbus’ by Joaquin Miller is a forty-line poem that is written in block form, meaning that it is contained within a single stanza of verse. The lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABABCDCD, and so on, changing end sounds from line to line. The poet also makes use of numerous examples of repetition at the beginning of lines, as described below.
Throughout this poem, the poet uses a few literary devices. These include
- Anaphora: the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of lines of verse. For example, “Behind” which begins lines one and two, and “Before,” which begins lines three and four.
- Allusion: a reference to something outside the scope of a literary text. For example, the poet describes Columbus’ travels in this poem but does not explicitly state that. The poem requires readers to fill in the gaps regarding the journey and its outcome.
- Sibilance: the repetition of the same “s” sound in multiple words. For example, “ghost of shores…. shoreless seas” in the first few lines.
- Sensory Language: the use of words to create images that trigger readers’ senses. For example, “The stout mate thought of home; a spray / Of salt wave washed his swarthy cheek.”
Behind him lay the gray Azores,
Behind the Gates of Hercules;
Before him not the ghost of shores,
Before him only shoreless seas.
The good mate said: “Now we must pray,
For lo! the very stars are gone.
Brave Admiral, speak, what shall I say?”
“Why, say, ‘Sail on! sail on! and on!’ “
“My men grow mutinous day by day;
My men grow ghastly wan and weak.”
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by using repetition to describe the drawn-out voyage of Christopher Columbus to the “New World” and how hard it was for the sailors who traveled with him.
The men left behind their homes with the intention of sailing to India. The prospect grew dimmer the longer the voyage went on. In front of them were only “shoreless seas” with no indication that they were any closer to their goal. This weighed on the minds of the crew, making them feel as though their quest was aimless and may only lead to suffering and perhaps death.
They were in a very bad situation with no stars (meaning no way to navigate). It felt hopeless, the speaker suggests. This comes through very clearly when the speaker describes the words of the “good mate.”
This crew member is worried about the outcome of their voyage and is concerned that they need to turn back at this point. He tells Columbus that the men are growing mutinous as the days pass, and their suffering increases.
The stout mate thought of home; a spray
Of salt wave washed his swarthy cheek.
“What shall I say, brave Admiral, say,
If we sight naught but seas at dawn?”
“Why, you shall say at break of day,
‘Sail on! sail on! and on!’ “
They sailed and sailed, as winds might blow,
Until at last the blanched mate said:
“Why, now not even God would know
Should I and all my men fall dead.
These very winds forget their way,
For God from these dead seas is gone.
The crew is growing desperate; the crew members relay to Columbus. They feel hopeless when they consider the goal and how far away they are. There is nothing “but seas at dawn” and no sign of the shoreline they’re looking for.
The same thing happens day after day; Columbus urges them on even though there seems to be no hope that they’re actually going to reach their destination. He has a determination that the other members of the crew do not. It’s clearly due to his urging that they continue on that all.
They feel so far from home, the next lines convey, that they think they’re out of sight of God. Even God wouldn’t know if they died now, they say. They feel forgotten and in an entirely inhospitable place.
Now speak, brave Admiral, speak and say” —
He said, “Sail on! sail on! and on!”
They sailed. They sailed. Then spake the mate:
“This mad sea shows his teeth tonight.
He curls his lip, he lies in wait,
With lifted teeth, as if to bite!
Brave Admiral, say but one good word:
What shall we do when hope is gone?”
The crew continues to urge Columbus to make a choice that they believe will save their lives. They want him to turn around and allow them to sail home. But, day after day, he continues to say, “sail on!” This is a refrain that’s used over and over in the poem.
They sailed, and they sailed, the poet writes, until everyone is at their wit’s end. The crew needs answers, the poet writes; they are desperate for hope or some indication that they’re on the right path. If Columbus can’t provide that, then they hope he’ll tell them that they’re headed home.
The words leapt like a leaping sword:
“Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!”
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! at last 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!”
No matter how desperate the situation gets, Columbus says the same thing over and over. He tells them to “sail on!” He believes in their destination fully. He knows that they are going to achieve what they set out to do and is unwilling to give in to the crews’ declarations of desperation.
Columbus is described as standing on the deck in all weather, as torn and worn down as everyone else is. He “peer[s] through the darkness,” hoping against hope that at some point, he’s going to see land. Finally, there is a “speck.” There is a light, a symbol of the land in the distance (also symbolizing hope and salvation). They are saved by that single speck and know at once that they’re going to live. It grew, the poet wrote, like a “split flag unfurled,” indicating an incredibly important moment in history.
With this burst of light Christopher Columbus “gained a world,” and he “gave that world” a very valuable lesson, the poet concludes. Christopher Columbus’s determination, the poet wrote, taught the world its grandest lesson that in the face of desperation and hopelessness, one must persevere or, “sail on!”
The moral of this poem is that if one wants to succeed and accomplish something great, perseverance is key. This is particularly true in moments of desperation went all hope seems lost.
Miller wrote ‘Columbus’ in order to share the story of Christopher Columbus and convey the importance he seems to place on persevering in the face of hopelessness and even death.
The poem ‘Columbus’ is about Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World. The poem is mainly focused on the difficulties that the crew faced during the voyage and how hopeless it seemed, and points, that they were ever going to reach their destination.
Readers who enjoyed this poem may also want to read some similar poems. For example:
- ‘In 1492 – Columbus sailed the ocean blue’ – a poem written about an idealized vision of American history, specifically the moment that Columbus “discovered” the New World, what he thought was India.
- ‘There was an Indian’ by J.C. Squire – describes the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the new world and the reaction of one Native American man.
- ‘Passage to India’ by Walt Whitman – describes an imaginary journey that a speaker wants to take into fabled India.