The dramatic monologue of "Ave Maria" opens with Columbus crowing like a braggart, congratulating himself on his own superiority. Though he is in the midst of a pounding storm, his concentration is turned toward the accolades he expects at his triumphant return to Spain. He is eager to sweep into the king’s court and rout all those experts and critics who had scorned him, and he invokes his two staunchest advocates: "Be with me, Luis de San Angel, now—"
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!
The note of defiance here is unmistakable, but it masks a profound misunderstanding: Columbus’s error, as he will realize in the course of his monologue, is that be believes that "Cathay" is his to bring "back." As long as he is convinced that he possesses Cathay, then he will be truly lost, assailed by a fierce storm that is a parallel to the tempest within him. In truth, his vindictive boasting and his determination to clutch Cathay is a form of greed that should be more alarming to him than death by water. In the beginning, however, the storm he is enduring only prods him into greater boastfulness; he does not yet know that the storm outside and the storm inside are one and the same thing.
To convince himself of the rightness of his mission and to assuage the fear that he may lose all in his storm, he clings to a vision that assigns him a central role of the highest importance. There is a desperate shrillness in his assertions, swathed as they in an unmistakable pride: "I thought of Genoa; and this truth, now proved, / That made me exile in her streets, stood me / More absolute than ever." The emphasis is on the fatal flaw of an unyielding pride. If his truth has been vindicated, then why is he subject to this "tempest-lash"? This is the question that gnaws at him throughout the storm and leads him to rehearse his moments of triumph, both those of the past in the discovery of Cathay and those to come in the future in his return to the court. To steady himself he relives again his moment of glory, the instant when the natives, seeing his boats and men for the first time, addressed them as gods: "And they came out to us crying, / ‘The Great White Birds!’"
With this memory, Columbus is suddenly abashed; he turns at once to address "Madre Maria," as though he had indeed stepped over the marl. He hears the boastful note in his own voice. And from his own shock of realizing that he had been thinking of himself as a god, he understands that his own word has been tested and found wanting. He is, in reality, "between two worlds" where another, harsh, // This third of water, tests the word." The awed praise he had received from the natives had been exactly what he had been anticipating from those contemptible "clowns" and "sages" on his return home, when he could state dramatically and unequivocally: "I bring you back Cathay!"
Cathay is not his to possess. Chastened by the gulf that has opened between his perilous actual position in the waters and his pompous, vainglorious ambition, he experiences the storm dying down (for the storm had been inside him from the start): "Some inmost sob, half-heard, dissuades the abyss, / Merges the wind in measure to the waves, // Series on series, infinite." To Columbus, the amerlioration of the tempest appears as divine intervention; to the modern reader, it is the new confession of humility, that "inmost sob, half-heard," that calms the waters. The abrupt shift in Colkumbus’s fortunes originates in his ability to take the measure of his own vanity, to recoil from it, then rise above it. The reason, then, that his prophecy suddenly seems to carry such undeniable authority—
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!
—is that we sense it is his own previous greed and possessiveness and ambition, not simply Fernando’s, that he is pushing away from in these climactic lines. The passage is not simply a condemnation of Fernando but a condemnation of what he himself had become. …
The end result of Columbus’s increased self-awareness is a total sense of the dynamic harmony of the universe, a universe in which he plays a small but crucial part. The concluding stanzas, which to him appear as a vision of the presence of Elohim, to the modern reader appear as a reflection of his new magnanimity. His own assertive ego has been set aside, and he relives with a new understanding his passage westward; it is a test in which God "Cruelly with love" sounds the "parable of man." Like Job he is beset by trials, but he can rise above them by his refusal to yield to pride or ambition. The parable of man is that he has the freedom to fall or, if he takes the courage to face himself, the freedom to soar. The endlessness of such testing is only to be welcomed, for to be challenged, to be brought up short, is to be made aware of one’s own frailty and falsity, and to be given the opportunity to rise to even grater heights. Though the poem ends with no land in sight but "still one shore beyond desire," the conclusion is an affirmative cry. The testing "Hand of Fire" offers the hope of a joyful self-renewal.