"Ave Maria" reinterprets Whitman’s "Passage to India" and "Prayer of Columbus"; but it is Whitman himself whose presence Crane acknowledges in his address to the power that sleeps upon itself [lines 57-58: "O Thou who sleepest on Thyself, apart / Like ocean athwart lanes of death and birth"]. For the rhetoric of Crane’s prayer invokes the language with which Whitman, in "Passage to India," appropriates the authority of deity to himself:
O Thou transcendent, Nameless, the fibre and the breath, Light of the light, shedding forth universes, thou centre of them, Thou pulse – thou motive of the stars, suns, systems, That, circling, move in order, safe. Harmonious, Athwart the shapeless vastnesses of space, How should I think, how breathe a single breath, how speak if, out of myself, I could not launch. To those, superior universes? (lines 193-95, 201-5)
Crane’s recasting of these lines in "Ave Maria" appeals to a "transcendent" deity only on the level of narrative myth; in a deeper sense, as I will argue, Crane’s prayer is addressed to Whitman himself. And embedded further in the subtext of that prayer lies, as [R. W. B.] Lewis has also noted, an allusion to these lines from Keats’s "Sleep and Poetry" … Just as Keats declares poetry "the supreme of power," so Whitman, who begins by acclaiming the creative abilities of a "nameless" and "transcendent" presence, ends by internalizing the power of that entity, claiming it as his own.
This claim provides the basis for Crane’s audacious apostrophe to a Whitman cunningly elevated to the status of a deity. That implicit apotheosis of Whitman can be clarified by referring to a passage in "Cape Hatteras" where Crane, with a modesty that belies the will to power of his text, ascribes to Whitman the construction of the very bridge that Crane figures as the source of poetic energy itself:
Our Meistersinger, thou set breath in steel; And it was thou who on the boldest heel Stood up and flung the span on even wing Of that great Bridge, our Myth, whereof I sing!
These lines echo the language and imagery of Columbus’s prayer in "Ave Maria" in the same way that the prayer alludes to Whitman’s phraseology in "Passage to India." The verbal parallels between these two passages from Crane’s poem point to the conflation of Whitman with the deity addressed in "Ave Maria."…
Yet if he conflates Whitman with the deity addressed by Columbus, Crane subsequently attempts to internalize Whitman just as Whitman internalized the "transcendent" power that his own poem addressed. … Where Whitman multiplies himself to undertake this dangerous voyage, Crane insists on isolation: "Utter to loneliness the sail is true." This solitude or "loneliness: achieves for the poet a freedom from the companion whose presence he would deny by successfully internalizing. Indeed, this "utter loneliness" signifies the loneliness of utterance he desires, the solitary eminance he would attain as he sails toward the "incognizable Word" that "Atlantis" will reformulate in a catachresis that designates the bridge itself as "steeled Cognizance."