Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Prayer of Columbus" (1874)
Author:
Stuckey-French, Ned C.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman wrote "Prayer of Columbus" in late 1873 and published it with a prefatory note in Harper's Monthly in March 1874. The poem was collected in the Centennial edition of Two Rivulets (1876) and entered Leaves of Grass with the 1881 edition.

Whitman wrote "Prayer" during one of the darkest periods of his life. He was already demoralized by the scandals of the Grant administration, the failures of Reconstruction and the country's descent into the Gilded Age, when in 1872 his opposition to black suffrage cost him his important friendship with William Douglas O'Connor. In January 1873 Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke; in February, his sister-in-law, Mattie, died; in May, his mother died; and finally, in October, Tom Olser, a Camden friend, was killed in an accident. While recuperating in Camden, he saw his most recent books ignored or panned.

As his despair deepened, Whitman turned to the figure of Columbus for inspiration. In "Prayer," Whitman expresses his own despair through the voice of the defeated Columbus of the fourth and final voyage, who, his ships badly damaged by worms, was forced to run ashore in Jamaica where his crew threatened mutiny and the natives staged guerrilla attacks. The poem presents a dramatic dialogue by Columbus in which he addresses God and himself and struggles with doubt. In a letter to Ellen O'Connor, Whitman wrote of the poem, "As I see it now, I shouldn't wonder if I have unconsciously put a sort of autobiographical dash in it" (Correspondence 2: 272).

The Columbus of the opening stanza is a "batter'd, wreck'd old man . . . [v]enting a heavy heart." In the second stanza, he sinks deeper into despair until he finally says, "Haply I may not live another day." But, then, as he turns to God in prayer, Columbus becomes angry and gains resolve. His voice becomes Job-like and defiant, and the prayer becomes a long list of his accomplishments, meant to remind God that he has been faithful. Though he tries to remain pious, he cannot accept his fate or put aside his pride. He claims his "[i]ntentions, purports, [and] aspirations" as his own and only grudgingly accepts that the "results" belong to God.

Throughout the poem Columbus wavers between self-doubt and pride. His uncertainty reflects the loss of faith Whitman felt at the time, for like Columbus, he was "[o]ld, poor, and paralyzed." In the final stanzas, the crisis comes to a head when Columbus addresses not God but himself and asks, "Is it the prophet's thought I speak, or am I raving?" At this point, Whitman borrows a conceit from Joel Barlow's The Columbiad and Washington Irving's The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, each of whom had portrayed Columbus as a prophet. At the close of "Prayer," Whitman's Columbus is consoled by a vision of "countless ships" sailing to the new world he has discovered.

Critics have generally admired "Prayer," seeing it as a striking and sustained example of dramatic monologue. Its controlled intensity is often compared favorably to the more ambitious and mystical, but also more histrionic "Passage to India," which features Columbus as well and immediately precedes "Prayer" in Leaves of Grass.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Barlow, Joel. The Columbiad. Philadelphia: C. and A. Conrad, 1807.

Irving, Washington. The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. 1828. Ed. John Harmon McElroy. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

____. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1980.


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