October 11, 2010

To trace new seas, and happy nations rear

Today is Columbus Day — the official celebration of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World in October 1492. The day did not become an official national holiday until the 20th century, but American writers were celebrating Columbus much earlier.

Joel Barlow, for example, published The Vision of Columbus in 1787 — a single poem which took the space of nine "books." Barlow, an early poet who served as a chaplain during the American Revolution, later expanded that 9-book poem into The Columbiad. Though both versions of the poem went through several editions, contemporary (and modern) critics remain divided on its merit.

The poem is a series of visions presented to Columbus by Hesper, a guardian, while he is imprisoned. Hesper shows him a vision of the American continents and their history up to the time of Barlow composing the poem, including the Revolution. The poem tells us why:

"Here, then," says Hesper with a blissful smile,
"Behold the fruits of thy long yeas of toil.
To yon bright borders of Atlantic day,
Thy swelling pinions led the trackless way,
And taught mankind such useful deeds to dare,
To trace new seas, and happy nations rear,
Till by fraternal hands their sails unfurled
Have waved at last in union o'er the world.
  Then let thy steadfast soul no more complain
Of dangers braved and griefs endured in vain,
Of courts insidious, envy's poisoned stings,
The loss of empire and the frown of kings;
While these broad views thy better thoughts compose
To spurn the malice of insulting foes;
And all the joys descending ages gain,
Repay thy labors and remove thy pain.

The first version of The Vision of Columbus was sold by subscription and its appendix included a list of subscribers. They included Gen. Henry Knox, the father of John Gardiner Calkins Brainard, the father of Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the artist Charles Wilson Peale.

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