‘The Discovery’, by J. C Squire describes a historical event: Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the New World on his 1942 expedition across the Atlantic Ocean which initiated the process of Spanish colonisation. The poem has gone by several names including ‘The Caravels, ‘Sonnet’ and ‘There was an Indian’. John Collings Squire (J. C Squire) (1884-1958) was a British poet, writer, historian, influential literary critic and editor of the post WW1 period. He was also a leading poet of the Georgian period. The poem is a simple sonnet; made up of two quatrains and a sestet.
The rhyme scheme is abab, cdcd, efegfg. The rhyme creates a steady, forward-moving motion similar to the movement of the waves and the inevitability of the oncoming Spanish vessels reaching the shore. The poet uses simple language and imagery which mirror the uncomplicated life of the Indian from whose perspective this historical event is retold. The discovery of the New World is often related from the perspective of the Spanish colonisers of the 15th and 16th centuries. Squire also reminds us that this was a two-fold discovery as the indigenous Americans discovered a new world of their own.
The phrase, ‘an Indian’, in the first stanza lends a sense of anonymity to the identity of the Indian who witnesses the arrival of Columbus. The indefinite article (an) allows us to believe that this Indian represents all Native Americans. The opening line is reminiscent of a folktale. This style suggests a mythologizing of this historical event, infusing it with an element of magic. One might also believe it to be an example of the oral tradition of legends told among Native Americans. Like other Indians, the Indian in the poem ‘had known no change’.
His life consisted of gathering shells; a simple way of life that belonged to an old civilisation for which this discovery was sure to be a shock. The alliteration of ‘s/sh’ in the line ‘… along a sunlit beach. Gathering shells’ depicts the calm, serene and uninterrupted life of the natives. He ‘strayed content’ almost aimlessly, along a ‘sunlit beach’, in no rush to go about his simple life. The presence of dawn symbolises the dawn of a new era in the life of the Indian. We are reminded that historical records show that the event occurred at dawn.
Light also symbolises knowledge and discovery for both the Spanish and the Indians. The caesura in the third line ‘He heard a sudden, strange commingled noise’ effectively draws our attention to the abrupt change in this tranquil picture. The caesura evokes a sense of confusion in the atmosphere which was once silent but is now filled with an unfamiliar noise. This is created through the use of alliteration and hard consonants. The Indian’s reaction in the last line of the first stanza ‘looked up: and gasped for speech’ indicates how amazed and speechless he was.
The caesura in line four ‘Commingled noise: looked up; and gasped for speech’, also denotes the abrupt actions and reactions of the Indian man. The second stanza is linked to the first stanza by means of a further explanation for the sudden change in the first quatrain. The poet evokes the Indian’s tone of amazement and wonder at the appearance of the ‘huge canoes’ that appear ‘by magic’. The idea of magic evokes a contrast between the two civilisations; the superstitious, tribal beliefs of the natives versus the more advanced scientific beliefs of the Spanish.
The poet also evokes the serene, tranquil and undefiled setting and one of confusion which is emphasised by the impressive image of these unnatural and unfamiliar sea vessels on the water. The Indian is unfamiliar with these large ships. In fact, he can only describe them in terms of what he already knows, for eg. ‘huge canoes’ and ‘not one oar’. The Indian’s tone of awe is audible even though the poet does not give him a voice. Perhaps, this is to further emphasise the domination and oppression of the Spanish colonisation of the Native Americans stamping out their voice, culture and traditions.
The images used in the stanza are simple yet vivid as can be seen through the image of the ‘Bellying cloths’ and ‘Fluttering coloured signs. The second quatrain is stylistically interesting because the poet is conscious of the different perspectives: that of the Indian man who tries to describe these unfamiliar objects by adapting them to those he is familiar with, and that of the reader who has a knowledge of history and immediately recognises the Indian’s attempt to describe the billowing sails, fluttering flags and ‘clambering crews’.
The alliteration of the letter ‘k’ sound in the last line of the second stanza ‘And fluttering coloured signs and clambering crews’, reminds us of the confusion and cacophony created by the sailors as they prepare to land. The third stanza, the ‘sestet’, begins with the conjunction ‘And’, linking it to the previous stanzas. There is now a Volta as the focus shifts to the Indian’s reaction to the caravels. There is an even greater use of caesura which creates an abrupt and staccato rhythm which might reflect the fear that has overcome the Indian, maybe his accelerated heartbeat too.
The Volta between the second and third stanzas is also evident in the rhyme scheme which suggests the inevitable, impending conclusion to this sighting as the caravels ‘Slant to the shore, and all their seamen land’. The final stanza draws a clear contrast between the native, who is ‘naked’ and ‘alone’ and the numerous sailors disembarking ‘Columbus’ doom-burdened caravels’. The Indian’s nakedness suggests his primitive lifestyle and his defencelessness. The Indian reacts ‘in fear’ and drops his shells.
This symbolises the fall of the native civilisation; his face turns white and he also kneels behind a stone. He stares at this monstrous sight and ‘did not understand’ the full impact of what was unfolding before his eyes. The poet’s intention is to make the contrast between the Spanish and the Indian evidently clear and simple to the reader, in order to draw our attention to the other side of the story which is rarely told in history books. This is emphasised by the choice of perspective for the poem.
The image of ‘Columbus’ doom-burdened caravels’ is a powerful one, suggesting a grimly mocking or cynical tone because these caravels symbolise the beginning of the corruption of old civilisations. The final image of the sailors landing on shore is ominous, adding to the heaviness that weighs upon the reader’s knowledge of what will inevitably follow. The poem ends abruptly as the poet does not need to tell us anything else due to the readers’ knowledge of what happens next which has been documented in the history books.