“In fourteen hundred and ninety two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
That little mnemonic was something I learned I don’t know how many years ago, and it has proved to be a faithful friend. I never have to grope for the date of Columbus’s famous voyage.
Columbus did not sail the ocean blue, of course. He sailed out into the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean. However the couplet:
“One miserable August day/Columbus
sailed the ocean gray”
would be neither memorable nor useful.
Popular history is not what happened, but what imagine that we remember. Colorful characters and big events are memorable, especially if they can be made into poetry. There were some scurrilous verses – which I can’t repeat here – that helped British schoolboys remember the names and the peculiar characteristics of the six wives of Henry VIII. Paul Revere make a famous ride to warn that the British were coming, although I don’t know what was so alarming about that.
“Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
On the eighteenth of April in seventy five
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.”
But of course we do remember that famous day and year, precisely because of Longfellow’s tedious poem.
The habit of making history into verse is very ancient. It began as a way of remembering the past in cultures that had no writing, and it continued as a way of celebrating and memorializing great events. The problem was that, in the process of turning history into literature, certain inaccuracies crept in. Not to put too fine a point on it many of these epic poems are about as true to life as an Oliver Stone movie. Under the microscope of modern historians, for example, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey turn out to be just the kind of straight reporting that you find in the National Enquirer.
This is unfortunate, especially for those of us who can’t remember any history without a good rhyme.
“Alone stood brave Horatius but constant still in mind
Thirty thousand foes before and the broad flood behind.”
It’s a great story, but now the seed of doubt has been planted. Did Horatius really hold off the entire Tuscan army? It seems improbable.
“The Boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled.”
But did young Casablanca really choose to go down with his father’s ship at the Battle of the Nile when everyone else had abandoned it? If so, why?
These questions may not seem very relevant to today’s world. Nobody writes poems about history any more. The age of epic heroes is past. People in the public eye tend to worry about their “place in history.” In most cases they won’t have any place in history. But some will be remembered by a single iconographic event – good or bad, glorious or disastrous. That will be their historical sound bite. It’s a risky business, finding a place in history – especially in such a skeptical, un-poetical age as ours. Future histories may record the plain truth in plain prose. Columbus did well to make his mark five centuries ago. Even if he was a mere fortune hunter who discovered the wrong continent, his place in history is secure. The historian Daniel Boorstin called him “A hero of the imagination,” which is the best kind of hero. We should remember him that way. Perhaps the ocean really was blue in fourteen hundred and ninety two.