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Emma Lazarus

1849–1887

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.

Emma Lazarus
Photo credit: Engraving by T. Johnson, 1872. Courtesy of The New York Historical Society.

By This Poet

19

Work

Yet life is not a vision nor a prayer,
    But stubborn work; she may not shun her task.
After the first compassion, none will spare
    Her portion and her work achieved, to ask.
She pleads for respite,—she will come ere long
When, resting by the roadside, she is strong.

Nay, for the hurrying throng of passers-by
    Will crush her with their onward-rolling stream.
Much must be done before the brief light die;
She may not loiter, rapt in the vain dream.
With unused trembling hands, and faltering feet,
She staggers forth, her lot assigned to meet.

But when she fills her days with duties done,
    Strange vigor comes, she is restored to health.
New aims, new interests rise with each new sun,
    And life still holds for her unbounded wealth.
All that seemed hard and toilsome now proves small,
And naught may daunt her,—she hath strength for all.

Long Island Sound

I see it as it looked one afternoon
In August,—by a fresh soft breeze o'erblown.
The swiftness of the tide, the light thereon,
A far-off sail, white as a crescent moon.
The shining waters with pale currents strewn,
The quiet fishing-smacks, the Eastern cove,
The semi-circle of its dark, green grove.
The luminous grasses, and the merry sun
In the grave sky; the sparkle far and wide,
Laughter of unseen children, cheerful chirp
Of crickets, and low lisp of rippling tide,
Light summer clouds fantastical as sleep
Changing unnoted while I gazed thereon.
All these fair sounds and sights I made my own.

The Feast of Lights

Kindle the taper like the steadfast star
Ablaze on evening's forehead o'er the earth,
And add each night a lustre till afar
An eightfold splendor shine above thy hearth.
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn;
Chant psalms of victory till the heart takes fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.

Remember how from wintry dawn till night,
Such songs were sung in Zion, when again
On the high altar flamed the sacred light,
And, purified from every Syrian stain,
The foam-white walls with golden shields were hung,
With crowns and silken spoils, and at the shrine,
Stood, midst their conqueror-tribe, five chieftains sprung
From one heroic stock, one seed divine.

Five branches grown from Mattathias' stem,
The Blessed John, the Keen-Eyed Jonathan,
Simon the fair, the Burst-of Spring, the Gem,
Eleazar, Help of-God; o'er all his clan
Judas the Lion-Prince, the Avenging Rod,
Towered in warrior-beauty, uncrowned king,
Armed with the breastplate and the sword of God,
Whose praise is: "He received the perishing."

They who had camped within the mountain-pass,
Couched on the rock, and tented neath the sky,
Who saw from Mizpah's heights the tangled grass
Choke the wide Temple-courts, the altar lie
Disfigured and polluted--who had flung
Their faces on the stones, and mourned aloud
And rent their garments, wailing with one tongue,
Crushed as a wind-swept bed of reeds is bowed,

Even they by one voice fired, one heart of flame,
Though broken reeds, had risen, and were men,
They rushed upon the spoiler and o'ercame,
Each arm for freedom had the strength of ten.
Now is their mourning into dancing turned,
Their sackcloth doffed for garments of delight,
Week-long the festive torches shall be burned,
Music and revelry wed day with night.

Still ours the dance, the feast, the glorious Psalm,
The mystic lights of emblem, and the Word.
Where is our Judas?  Where our five-branched palm?
Where are the lion-warriors of the Lord?
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Sound the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn,
Chant hymns of victory till the heart take fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born!