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About this poet

A descendant of Sephardic Jews who immigrated to the United States from Portugal around the time of the American Revolution, Emma Lazarus was born in New York City on July 22, 1849. Before Lazarus, the only Jewish poets published in the United States were humor and hymnal writers. Her book Songs of a Semite was the first collection of poetry to explore Jewish-American identity while struggling with the problems of modern poetics.

Her family was wealthy, and Lazarus was educated at home, acquiring a knowledge of Greek and Latin classics, as well as the modern literature of Germany, Italy, and France. Lazarus developed an affinity for verse at an early age. As a teenager, she began translating the poems of Victor Hugo, Heinrich Heine, Alexandre Dumas, and Friedrich Schiller.

Lazarus began publishing poems in the 1860s and 1870s, including translations of German poems. In 1866, her father arranged for the poems and translations she wrote between the ages of fourteen and sixteen to be privately printed, and the following year a commercially published volume titled Poems and Translations followed. The work attracted the attention of poets and critics, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who became her friend and mentor.

Lazarus published another volume of poetry, Admetus and Other Poems (1871); a novel, Alide: An Episode in Goethe's Life (1874); and a verse drama, The Spagnoletto (1876), before her interests in Jewish identity and culture were reflected in her work. After reading George Eliot's 1876 novel Daniel Deronda, which explores Jewish ancestory in Victorian society, Lazarus began to translate medieval Hebrew poetry from the German. News of the Russian pogroms fueled her interest. In 1881, she witnessed firsthand the tumultuous arrival of exiled refugees into the United States. The following year, she published a polemic in The Century, as well as another collection of verse, Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death and Other Poems.

Following the publication of Songs of a Semite, Lazarus wrote several prose pieces concerned with the historical and political interests of the Jewish people, and travelled to France and England, where she met and befriended literary figures, such as Robert Browning and William Morris.

After returning from Europe, Lazarus was asked for an original poem to be auctioned off as a fundraiser for the building of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Though she initially declined, Lazarus later used the opportunity to express the plight of refugee immigrants, who she cared greatly about. Her resulting sonnet, "The New Colossus", includes the iconic lines "Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," and is inscribed on a plaque on the pedestal of the monument.

In 1884, Lazarus fell ill, most likely from Hodgkin's lymphoma. After her father's death the following year, she travelled again, hoping an encounter with a new country would help her regain some of her strength. She visited Italy for the first time, followed by England and France, but soon returned to the United States when her illness worsened. She died a few months later on November 17, 1887.

In the years following her death, Lazarus fell into relative obscurity. A 1926 edition of her complete collected poems was kept out of the public eye by her sister, who owned the rights to the work, but whose religious and political beliefs were in opposition to the Judaic concerns raised by Lazarus in her poetry.

Chopin

Emma Lazarus, 1849 - 1887
I

A dream of interlinking hands, of feet 
Tireless to spin the unseen, fairy woof 
Of the entangling waltz. Bright eyebeams meet, 
Gay laughter echoes from the vaulted roof. 
Warm perfumes rise; the soft unflickering glow 
Of branching lights sets off the changeful charms 
Of glancing gems, rich stuffs, the dazzling snow 
Of necks unkerchieft, and bare, clinging arms. 
Hark to the music! How beneath the strain 
Of reckless revelry, vibrates and sobs 
One fundamental chord of constant pain, 
The pulse-beat of the poet's heart that throbs. 
So yearns, though all the dancing waves rejoice, 
The troubled sea's disconsolate, deep voice. 


II

Who shall proclaim the golden fable false 
Of Orpheus' miracles? This subtle strain 
Above our prose-world's sordid loss and gain 
Lightly uplifts us. With the rhythmic waltz, 
The lyric prelude, the nocturnal song 
Of love and languor, varied visions rise, 
That melt and blend to our enchanted eyes. 
The Polish poet who sleeps silenced long, 
The seraph-souled musician, breathes again 
Eternal eloquence, immortal pain. 
Revived the exalted face we know so well, 
The illuminated eyes, the fragile frame, 
Slowly consuming with its inward flame, 
We stir not, speak not, lest we break the spell. 


III

A voice was needed, sweet and true and fine 
As the sad spirit of the evening breeze, 
Throbbing with human passion, yet devine 
As the wild bird's untutored melodies. 
A voice for him 'neath twilight heavens dim, 
Who mourneth for his dead, while round him fall 
The wan and noiseless leaves. A voice for him 
Who sees the first green sprout, who hears the call 
Of the first robin on the first spring day. 
A voice for all whom Fate hath set apart, 
Who, still misprized, must perish by the way, 
Longing with love, for that they lack the art 
Of their own soul's expression. For all these 
Sing the unspoken hope, the vague, sad reveries. 


IV

Then Nature shaped a poet's heart--a lyre 
From out whose chords the lightest breeze that blows 
Drew trembling music, wakening sweet desire. 
How shall she cherish him? Behold! she throws 
This precious, fragile treasure in the whirl 
Of seething passions; he is scourged and stung, 
Must dive in storm-vext seas, if but one pearl 
Of art or beauty therefrom may be wrung. 
No pure-browed pensive nymph his Muse shall be, 
An amazon of thought with sovereign eyes, 
Whose kiss was poison, man-brained, worldy-wise, 
Inspired that elfin, delicate harmony. 
Rich gain for us! But with him is it well? 
The poet who must sound earth, heaven, and hell!

This poem is in the public domain.

This poem is in the public domain.

Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus

Posthumously famous for her sonnet, "The New Colossus," which is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus is considered America's first important Jewish poet

by this poet

poem

Little Poems in Prose

I. The Exodus. (August 3, 1492.)

1. The Spanish noon is a blaze of azure fire, and the dusty pilgrims crawl like an endless serpent along treeless plains and bleached highroads, through rock-split ravines and castellated, cathedral-shadowed towns.

2. The hoary

poem
Night, and beneath star-blazoned summer skies
   Behold the Spirit of the musky South,
A creole with still-burning, languid eyes,
   Voluptuous limbs and incense-breathing mouth:
         Swathed in spun gauze is she,
From fibres of her own anana tree.

Within these sumptuous woods she lies at ease,
   By rich
poem
As when a father dies, his children draw 
About the empty hearth, their loss to cheat 
With uttered praise & love, & oft repeat 
His all-familiar words with whispered awe. 
The honored habit of his daily law, 
Not for his sake, but theirs whose feeble feet 
Need still that guiding lamp, whose faith, less