Ave Maria

Ave Maria

The first part of Hart Crane’s The Bridge begins with an inscription from Seneca:

Venient annis, saecula seris,
Quibus Oceanus vincula rerum
Laxet et ingens pateat tellus
Tethysque novos degat orbes
Nec sit terris ultima Thule

That’s where the problems begin.

I may have stumbled onto something, but to explore it I really must present the entire text

The quotation is incorrect, and was corrected in all editions except the first. However, the Collected Works reverts to the original:

“Tethyesque” is used to emend “Tiphysque” or its variant in all other versions because of the following: Below the epigraph in the first edition proofs “look up in Medea?” is inscribed and circled in pencil, but not in HC’s hand. The form “Tiphysque” became “Tethyesque” in the first edition, but HC had not changed or commented on the quotation, which he had taken from an inaccurate source.

I may have found the original “inaccurate source.”

The debate is interesting because Tethys was the sister of Oceanus, while Tiphyn was the helmsman of the Argonauts. The latter name seems reasonable, considering the focus of this section is Columbus and his voyage to America. It’s also the name that actually appears in Seneca’s Medea. So, why does this matter? Because if my hunch is correct, HC’s unwitting use of the wrong name points at a text that may have had some influence on this section of the poem.

A reference to a letter from June 20, 1926, to Waldo Frank footnoted in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poets (which thankfully includes Hart Crane) interests me a great deal (now I’ve got to buy a volume of his letters…).

He speaks of having what he had thought were authentic materials. These materials were valid to me to the extent that I presumed them to be (articulate or not) at least organic and active factors in the experience and perceptions of our common race, time, and belief.

Coat of arms of ColumbusIt seems almost too much of a coincidence that chapter 12 of Joseph Wheless’ Is It God’s Word?, published in 1926, uses the same citation with the same mistake in the context of a discussion of Columbus, the focus of Crane’s “Ave Maria.”

“Venient annis, saecula seris,
Quibus Oceanus vincula rerum
Laxet, et ingens pateat tellus,
Tethysque novos detegat orbes;
Nec sit terris ultima Thule.” (Medea, ii, 375.)

“There will come a time,” he says, “in later years, when Oceans shall loosen the bonds of things, and a huge land shall lie revealed, and Tethys shall disclose new worlds, and Thule shall no longer be at the end of the earth.” This is one of the most notable un-“inspired” prophecies on record. In a copy of the Tragedies of Seneca, belonging to Ferdinand Columbus, now in the Biblioteca Colombina, there is attached to these prophetic verses this marginal note: “Haec prophetia expleta et per patrem meumCristoforo Colon, Almirante, anno 1492.”

Wheless’ book is a rather clumsy attack on Christianity, which primarily enumerates all the times where science was right, and religion was wrong. As further example of his rather inarticulate prose style, consider this:

There were immortal heroes of science who dared defy such inspired ignorance. Copernicus, truer prophet of God than Moses or pope, wrote his inspired revelation of God in the heavens, “The evolutions of the Heavenly Bodies,” which in terror of Yahveh’s Holy-Ghost-inspired Church he withheld from publication till the day of his death, May 24, 1543. Then with his dying breath he gave to the world the revelation that the sun is the center of the solar system, and that the earth and other planets revolve around it; and from the security of the border of the grave he defiantly dedicated his immortal work to His Holiness the Pope.

I could be wrong. The dates are rather close; I suppose it depends on what month Wheless’ book came out. But the parallels with the poem are striking. The first page contains the gloss “Columbus, alone, gazing toward Spain, invokes the presence of two faithful partisans of his quest . . .” I suppose I had better get to it:

Ave Maria

BE with me, Luis de San Angel, now—
Witness before the tides can wrest away
The word I bring, O you who reined my suit
Into the Queen’s great heart that doubtful day;
For I have seen now what no perjured breath
Of clown nor sage can riddle or gainsay;—
To you, too, Juan Perez, whose counsel fear
And greed adjourned,— I bring you back Cathay!

Here waves climb into dusk on gleaming mail;
Invisible valves of the sea,— locks, tendons
Crested and creeping, troughing corridors
That fall back yawning to another plunge.
Slowly the sun’s red caravel drops light
Once more behind us. . . . It is morning there—
O where our Indian emperies lie revealed,
Yet lost, all, let this keel one instant yield!

I thought of Genoa; and this truth, now proved,
That made me exile on her streets, stood me
More absolute than ever — biding the moon
Till dawn should clear that dim frontier, first seen
—The Chan’s great continent . . . . Then faith, not fear
Nigh surged me witless . . . . Hearing the surf near—
I, wonder-breathing, kept the watch,— saw
The first palm chevron the first lighted hill.

The resonance of these lines is just astounding. Luis de San Angel was the man who successfully pleaded Columbus’s case, and Juan Perez was the queens confessor. Genoa was where Columbus was from. I can’t help but notice the tenuous nature of these lines. The fragility of the ship who would founder like his other ships if the keel should yield. It also seems striking that it was “faith, not fear” that made him witless. It seems an interesting choice to place Columbus after the Brooklyn Bridge, echoing it perhaps in the metallic imagery of “waves climbing into dusk on gleaming mail.” But the mood shifts into descent, as the cask holding Columbus’ logs is set adrift, and the next stanza begins with a rather odd fragment, though I suppose it implies that he was standing watch up on a mast, and climbed down:

And lowered. And they came out to us crying,
“The Great White Birds!” (O Madre Maria, still
One ship of these thou grantest safe returning;
Assure us through thy mantle’s ageless blue! )
And record of more, floating in a casque,
Was tumbled from us under bare poles scudding;
And later hurricanes may claim more pawn. . . .
For here between two worlds, another, harsh,

This third, of water, tests the word; lo, here
Bewilderment and mutiny heap whelming
Laughter, and shadow cuts sleep from the heart
Almost as though the Moor’s flung scimitar
Found more than flesh to fathom in its fall.
Yet under tempest-lash and surfeitings
Some inmost sob, half-heard, dissuades the abyss,
Merges the wind in measure to the waves,

Series on series, infinite, — till eyes
Starved wide on blackened tides, accrete — enclose
This turning rondure whole, this crescent ring
Sun-cusped and zoned with modulated fire
Like pearls that whisper through the Doge’s hands
—Yet no delirium of jewels! O Fernando,
Take of that eastern shore, this western sea,
Yet yield thy God’s, thy Virgin’s charity!

—Rush down the plenitude, and you shall see
Isaiah counting famine on this lee!

Columbus’ crew did threaten mutiny, but it was averted. The Doge is the chief magistrate of Genoa. The key points here seem to me to be the third world as a sea, which separates the old and new world, “starved wide on blackened tides.” The reference to Isaiah is incredibly haunting too. The part which Crane refers to is no doubt Isaiah 14, where a tyrant is deposed and the survivors are admonished “Let them never rise to possess the earth / or cover the face of the world with cities” [14:
21] (clearly similar to the fate of Spain) but more specifically, “The firstborn of the poor will graze, and the needy lie down in safety; but I will make your root die of famine” [14:30]. There is not much joy in this part of history, no jewels. Just a long trip back.

An herb, a stray branch among salty teeth,
The jellied weeds that drag the shore, — perhaps
Tomorrow’s moon will grant us Saltes Bar—
Palos again,— a land cleared of long war.
Some Angelus environs the cordage tree;
Dark waters onward shake the dark prow free.

O Thou who sleepest on Thyself, apart
Like ocean athwart lanes of death and birth,
And all the eddying breath between dost search
Cruelly with love thy parable of man,—
Inquisitor! incognizable Word
Of Eden and the enchained Sepulchre,
Into thy steep savannahs, burning blue,
Utter to loneliness the sail is true.

Who grindest oar, and arguing the mast
Subscribest holocaust of ships, O Thou
Within whose primal scan consummately
The glistening seignories of Ganges swim; —
Who sendest greeting by the corposant,
And Teneriffe’s garnet — flamed it in a cloud,
Urging through night our passage to the Chan;—
Te Deum laudamus, for thy teeming span!

Of all that amplitude that time explores,
A needle in the sight, suspended north,—
Yielding by inference and discard, faith
And true appointment from the hidden shoal:
This disposition that thy night relates
From Moon to Saturn in one sapphire wheel:
The orbic wake of thy once whirling feet,
Elohim, still I hear thy sounding heel!

White toil of heaven’s cordons, mustering
In holy rings all sails charged to the far
Hushed gleaming fields and pendant seething wheat
Of knowledge,— round thy brows unhooded now
—The kindled Crown! acceded of the poles
And biassed by full sails, meridians reel
Thy purpose — still one shore beyond desire!
The sea’s green crying towers a-sway, Beyond

And kingdoms
                        naked in the
                                                 trembling heart—
                  Te Deum laudamus
                                             O Thou Hand of Fire

It seems interesting that Crane makes reference to discarding faith in favor of inference, and then addresses the rotation of the globe as the work of God, in light of Wheless’ text. But it could just be an odd coincidence.