Cincinnatus Heine Miller, better known as Joaquin Miller, was born in Liberty, Indiana on September 8, 1837, but later, for unknown reasons, changed his date of birth to November 10, 1841. While yet a boy he went to Oregon and later, during the Gold Rush years, to California. He led an adventurous life, living among and cooking for the miners, fighting the Indians, becoming a Pony Express rider, writing for a newspaper, practicing law, and becoming a county judge. In 1868, Miller paid for the publication of 500 copies of his first book of poetry, Specimens. It was not popular and Miller gave away more copies than he sold. The author’s despair and disappointment was reflected in his second book, Joaquin et al., the next year. Miller then went to England, where he gained much popularity by capitalizing on his image as a rough Western frontiersman. There, in May 1871, Miller published Songs of the Sierras, the book which finalized his nickname as the “Poet of the Sierras”. Relocating then to New York, then to Oregon, and finally settling back in California, Miller wrote Songs of the Sun-Lands, and The Ship in the Desert. Miller’s poem Columbus was widely known, being memorized and recited by schoolchildren everywhere.
Columbus by Joaquin Miller
Behind him lay the gray Azores,
Behind him the gates of Hercules;
Before him not the ghost of shores,
Before him only shoreless seas.
The good mate said: “Now must we 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 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! 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 dread 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 to-night.
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 as 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! a light! 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 greatest lesson: “On! sail on!”
Joaquin Miller died in California on February 17, 1913
Recite and/or memorize the poem:
A reading of poem, Columbus
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Learn more about Columbus by completing:
Unit Study for Pedro’s Journal, about a young boy aboard Columbus’ ship.
For a tea time treat make:
Sea Biscuits, just like Columbus and his crew would have eaten!