Ave Maria


This poem is narrated by Christopher Columbus, returning to Spain after discovering the "New World" (so-called by we Europeans). Columbus's one remaining ship, the Santa Maria (the Nina and the Pinta had sunk, as referenced in line 27) is probably caught in a storm (lines 2, 16, 38-39). (I think the situation changes after line 50, but this holds till there.)

No one I've read makes much of the irony that Columbus misunderstood what he had found, thinking he had arrived at India and China from the East, and so one the great discovery he is so concerned to preserve is tainted (although he has shown that there is land beyond the Atlantic ocean, and presumably that the world is round, though since he had not really gone full circle, it could still have dropped off to the West of the Americas).

My professor suggests that the implicit question in this poem is whether Crane himself can convey his poetic message to us before he sinks into self-destruction.


(numbers refer to lines of the poem)

Ave Maria : The Latin name for a Catholic prayer called in English the "Hail Mary" ("say ten Hail Marys and ten Our Fathers"). Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. The second sentence was added by the Council of Trent, which first met in 1545, so it would have not have been in place in Columbus's time (Crane may or may not have know this). <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hail_Mary>

epigraph : From Medea by Seneca: "In distant years a time will come when Ocean will release the chains of things and the mighty earth will be revealed and Tiphys [the pilot of the Argonauts' quest for the golden fleece] will disclose new worlds, and there will be no ultimate Thule [the limit of ancient exploration] to be a limit to the lands" (Ellmann and O'Clair).

Marc Simon, in his edition of the poems of Crane, argues that the epigraph should have Tethys ["the sister and wife of Oceanus, often personifying the sea"] instead of Tiphys (which Simon spells Tiphyn). See his note on p. 234 of the paperback.

1: Luis de San Angel : "Collector of church revenues in Spain, who pleaded Columbus's scheme to Queen Isabella" (Ellmann and O'Clair).

3: reined : guided (Oxford English Dictionary).

5: perjured breath : those who opposed Columbus's voyage at the court of Ferdinand (line 46) and Isabella (line 4), King and Queen of Spain, are made liars by Columbus's discovery. An odd word choice, since "perjury" refers to intentional lies (told under oath), and (at least by tradition) no one knew for certain the shape of the earth before Columbus sailed.

6: caravel : small sailing vessel; Columbus's ships were caravels (Ellmann and O'Clair).

7: Juan Perez : "The queen's confessor, who also aided Columbus" (Ellmann and O'Clair).

7-8: fear / And greed : Nilsen thinks this refers to King Ferdinand's fear and greed specifically. I am not clear in what sense greed has been "adjourned," since greed seems to me a main reason one might support the expedition, and Columbus later worries that Ferdinand will be too greedy.

9: mail : perhaps a play on mailing one's poems in to a magazine.

10: valves of the sea : people used to believe that the opening and closing of valves under the sea was what caused the tides.

11: troughing : The OED gives "making troughs of" as one meaning for this, which Hishikawa argues for. I'm not sure I'm convinced of that reading.

15: emperies : archaic for "empires."

17: Genoa : Columbus was born in Genoa, a seaport in northern Italy.

17: this truth : that the world is round (in story at least, those who opposed Columbus's journey were afraid that the world was flat, and that Columbus might sail off the end, or at the best could not find a shorter route to China, which was his goal, and which he believed he had done).

17: Columbus here flashes back to when he stood watch and (in the poem, at least) was the first to spy the New World. I would argue that the flashback lasts until the parenthesis in line 26.

19: biding : enduring.

21: Chan : also spelled "Khan"--the Chinese emperor.

24: chevron : a heraldic symbol in the shape of an inverted V; refers here to the shape of the palm tree's leaves.

25: lowered : OED gives a meaning "to haul down a sail." Might also refer to dropping anchor? If we want to be very strict, it is illogical, if the sails are lowered in this line, for the Native Americans in the next line to describe the ships as great white birds. Of course, they could have seen the sails earlier, and I am assuming it is the white sails, and not the white sailors or something else, that they are reacting to.

26: Madre Maria : Spanish for "Mother Mary," the Virgin Mary.

27: One ship : of Columbus's original three ships, only the Santa Maria had not sunk.

28: thy mantle's ageless blue : traditionally, the Virgin Mary wore a blue mantle. Here it is figured as the sea or the sky.

30: record . . . in a casque : Worried he might sink, Columbus sealed a record of what he had found in a cask and set it adrift, so that someone might find it.

31: pawn : if this referred to "little men" used like chess pawns to further the ends of a greater power, it should be plural. So we may want to take it in the sense of a pawn shop, something taken as security for a loan. That would be a monetary or even capitalist image that would recall "To Brooklyn Bridge." It might suggest that nature and man's conventional system of monetary value are intertwined, rather than separate. (Crane seems to argue throughout The Bridge that technology need not be alienated from real human-ness but can be a continuing expression of it.)

33: This third, of water : needless to say, the third world of water is implicitly compared to a bridge (cf. lines 57-58).

33: tests the word : a literal interpretation of this might be that the bad weather threatens to sink the cask.

35: cuts : a verb; shadow is cutting.

36: Moor : the Moors of Northern Africa engaged in a long war with Spain.

38: surfeitings : The Oxford English Dictionary gives a definition for this that is roughly "nauseating excesses."

39: abyss : here, the depths of the ocean.

43: rondure : sphere. Nilsen notes that this word is used by Walt Whitman in his poem "Passage to India."

45: Doge : the Doge was the chief magistrate of Genoa.

45: that eastern shore : of America.

50: Isaiah counting famine : see Isaiah 14:29-30 in the Bible.

51-52: I am confused by all the food imagery in these lines ("herb," "salty," "jellied"). It seems inappropriately playful and refined given the tone of the poem so far.

55: cleared of long war : the Reconquista (the "Reconquest"-- the war with the Moors over Southern Spain) lasted from CE 711 to CE 1492 (!). It ended before Columbus left for America. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reconquista>

55: Angelus : morning church bells (Ellmann and O'Clair).

55: environs : envelops.

55: cordage : a cord is a measure of an amount of wood. So "cordage tree" means "tree used for lumber," I think.

56: onward : possibly "ahead," or possibly an exhortation to the waters.

56: shake the dark prow free : probably means that the waters shake the prow free of something (what is unclear--the prow, being in water, doesn't seem very confined). But could also mean that it is the prow, which is free, that is shaken.

58: ocean athwart : I think the way to read this is with an implicit comma between "ocean" and "athwart" ("across; from one side to the other of"), although the line breaks invite the other reading.

59: Thou : God.

62: Sepulchre : Christ's tomb.

64: Utter : can be read as "only" or as a verb ("speak").

65: arguing : Nilsen reads this as "testing" or "straining" (with bad weather).

66: subscribest : Nilsen reads this as "sanctions" or "subscribes to."

66: holocaust : Since I think Columbus may be praising God in this poem, it is worth noting that this word does not strike the sour note of questioning God's goodness that we might imagine, since the 20th-century Holocaust of the Jews had not happened yet.

68: seignories of Ganges : a "seignory" is the power of a feudal lord, or the area over which he has dominion, and this is the sense that Nilsen assumes. But Ellmann and O'Clair claim that it here means "fish." The Ganges is the holy river in India.

69-70: Columbus saw a fireball off Teneriffe, the largest of the Canary Islands, which he felt was a sign of "His hand" (Ellmann and O'Clair).

70: garnet : a mineral that can take several forms, but most commonly referred to in its form as a red gem. (Cf. "sapphire" in line 78.)

72: Te Deum laudamus : a hymn of celebration, translated "We praise you, God."

73: needle . . . suspended north : this refers to a compass needle.

76: shoal : a shallow, hard-to-navigate place in a body of water.

80: Elohim : a name of God.

83: pendant : an object suspended from a necklace or earring; more broadly, anything hanging. Wheat grows upwards, but perhaps when it is ready to be harvested the tops of its stalks are heavier and bend down.

86: biassed : alternate spelling of "biased."

86: meridians : a meridian is a Great Circle of the Earth that passes through the North and South poles, perpendicular to the equator (the most famous is the Prime Meridian).

91: trembling heart : a pun on Crane's own name.



This page has been edited 10 times. The last modification was made by - MisterMartin MisterMartin on Mar 11, 2008 2:58 pm