The American Poets Project seeks to present America’s most significant poets in inexpensive editions. In celebration of National Poetry Month, over the next three weeks David Kaufmann will look at the work of three Jewish poets included in the project, beginning with Emma Lazarus and followed by Karl Shapiro and Muriel Rukeyser.
It has been Emma Lazarus’s odd fate to be remembered for a poem, “The New Colossus,” that already had been forgotten by the time of her death in 1887. This sonnet, with its ringing apostrophe (“Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore…”) has become inextricably linked to the Statue of Liberty, because every visitor since 1903 has been able to read it inscribed on a bronze plaque inside the pedestal of the “Mother of Exiles.”
In the introduction to this excellent selection of Lazarus’s poetry for the American Poets Project, editor John Hollander defends the “The New Colossus,” maintaining that it is “an unusually fine poem, one of those perennial favorites that are… masterpieces of a kind.” Perhaps, but like many perennial favorites, its most famous bits are just a little too famous to be appreciated. Like an old hit tune, you find yourself joining in without thinking about the words.
Does Emma Lazarus deserve better? Hollander, an award-winning poet and editor of The Library of America’s superb two-volume anthology of 19th-century verse, certainly thinks so. Because we have shed the “last vestiges of modernist bias,” he argues, we should now be free to see the quality of Lazarus’s later verse. “The New Colossus” can serve as a nice test case. Hollander compares it with another sonnet, written by Lazarus in 1883; he indicates that it handles the balances and antitheses of the sonnet form quite nicely, and then argues that it rewrites both Dante and Genesis into the bargain. In the process, Hollander performs a very nice trick: He makes the reader actually look at those old, familiar lines. He makes them interesting.
If you look at Lazarus’s poetry in the context of The Library of America anthology, you can see that Hollander is right about its quality. While Whitman and Dickinson might have subsequently eclipsed Lazarus, her work stands up well in comparison with the rest of her contemporaries. Indeed, she had already been a well-respected poet for almost two decades before she died of cancer at the age of 38. A protégée of Emerson, a friend of Browning, a noted translator, and a woman who corresponded with the leading writers of her day in both the United States and Europe, Lazarus occupied a firm, if not central, position in the New York literary world. Hollander’s choice of Lazarus’s work displays her rather impressive range of tones and interests. Her sister suggested that Lazarus was first moved to write poetry by the onset of the Civil War. The best of her earliest poems celebrate the heroism of the Union Army, and she was able to maintain a very convincing martial strain throughout her work. She could write fine public verse such as “The New Colossus.” She was also capable of striking strong transcendentalist poses in the best Emersonian vein. Even better, her love of music led her to write complicated fantasias on Robert Schumann and Frédéric Chopin in which she tested and worried the limits of the imagination. In short, Lazarus turns out to be a talented Victorian poet.
But Hollander has to concede that Lazarus’s chief claim on our interest is not her considerable command of poetic form nor her literary-historical canniness, but the fact that she was the first truly talented American Jewish poet to write consciously as a Jew. This took some real courage. Lazarus was born into an old, wealthy New York family that had mixed Sephardic and Ashkenazic roots. Her father, who had made his money before the Civil War in the refining and trade of sugar, had achieved real acceptance, was a member of the best clubs and had, by all accounts, assimilated nicely into the higher reaches of New York society. Emma, too, was equally at home with Jews and gentiles. (Some of her biographers maintain that she was more comfortable among her Christian friends.) But the tone in the United States changed after the defeat of the South, and a nervous jockeying for social position during the 1870s led to the first real manifestations of anti-Jewish feeling. These outbreaks, generally pretty benign by European standards, coincided ominously with the birth of political antisemitism in Western Europe and with pogroms in Russia. The beginning of the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews fueled them further. In the early 1880s, Lazarus, whose work had always traded in Jewish themes, reacted to this complicated new dispensation by writing strongly polemical poems and essays on behalf of the Jews both here and abroad.
In her early work, Lazarus worried that the United States had no past and the Jews had no future. She came to resolve this dilemma by claiming that it was the singular destiny of the United States to secure the fate of the Jews. In order to show that the Jews were particularly suited to the demands of the new democracy, however, she had to recast Judaism in America’s image. This she achieved in a series of essays in the Jewish and the general press. Like most progressive Reform Jews of her time, she found the essence of Judaism in the ethics of the prophets, not in the 613 laws and not in the Talmud. (Her reverence for the prophets and her emphasis on justice also made her very sympathetic to socialism, if not a socialist herself.) As she made clear in her last published poem, she saw the Talmud and Kabbalah as a “cunningly enmeshed web” that helped imprison the Jews in “dark corners of misery and oppression.” She argued to her Christian readers that “this scattered band of Israelites,” because it was always in the minority, always assumed “the attitude of protestants against the dominant creed, against society as it is.” To her Jewish readers, she wrote that the Jew “is a born rebel… endowed with a shrewd, logical mind, in order that he may examine and protest; with a stout and fervent heart in order that the instinct of liberty may grown into a consuming passion….” In this way, she recast every Jew as a canny Yankee, with a touch of Emerson thrown in.
Lazarus was fervent in her conviction that America should be the natural habitat of the Jews — that it should serve, as Mary Antin would come to claim a generation later, as the Promised Land. But she was also wary of the unintended effects of immigration and argued just as fervently that Palestine should provide a home for the Eastern Europeans. Not for nothing, then, has she been claimed as a Zionist before the fact. She also betrays a number of the prejudices, as well as the dreams of men like Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau. But the fuse that drives the best of her late poetry is the conviction she shares with a number of later Zionists: her belief that the best destiny of the Jews must lie in feats of military heroism.
In her poem “The New Ezekiel,” Lazarus expresses the fear that “these ignoble relics” — by which she appears to mean contemporary Jewry in general, although this is usually the language reserved for Russian and Polish Jews — “Are… all that live/Of psalmist, priest, and prophet.” She then counters her misgivings by paraphrasing Ezekiel and imagining an Israel resurrected by the poet-prophet’s words. But she does not see a new order of psalmists, priests and prophets. She imagines rows on rows of soldiers in full military muster, and she has warrant for this image in the biblical text — Ezekiel does describe the revived people of Israel as God’s army. But by excising a few verses from the original, Lazarus has made Ezekiel’s metaphor quite literal. She has shifted the argument, however subtly. First the Lord revives His host as a host, and then — and only then — does He return the people to their country. A revived Israel can only return if it comes with sword in hand.
Lazarus fleshes out a similar fantasy when she conflates Ezra the scribe (who led the Jews back from the Babylonian captivity) with Judah the Hammer in “The Banner of the Jew.” After insisting that the martial fire of the Maccabees has not yet been extinguished, she imagines such a banner, a Jewish battle flag. Such a flag, foolish at first, will be consecrated (just as the field at Gettysburg was consecrated) by suffering and sacrifice. Under such a flag, all will rally to the Jews’ side:
Lazarus echoes her own Civil War oratory here and makes clear the unsettling implications of her own stirring words. Once again the poet seems to mean what she says quite literally. Jewish revival depends on a Jewish willingness to fight. The solidarity of the Jewish people and the respect of the world both depend on the Jews’ ability to shed their own and others’ blood. Lazarus’s chief concern lies with the fate of the Jews, not with the fate of the Jewish faith. As her obituary in Century noted, “she sings Rosh Hashanah…and Hanuckah [sic]” — that is, new beginnings and Jewish military victory. In this, as in so many other ways, her responses to the tensions and possibilities of the two decades after the Civil War are both sensitive and prescient.
In the end, it is precisely her contradictions that should make Lazarus important for us, because we still live them out today. She was both a Zionist and a firm believer in America; a secularist and a fierce apologist for Judaism; an assimilated snob and a dedicated defender of immigrants; a child of privilege and a critic of capitalism. She yearned for peace and justice and remained a sucker for military glory. What’s more, at her best, she could really write.
For decades, Lazarus’s poetry was only available in an edition underwritten by the International Workers Organization’s Jewish section, and then by its spin-off, the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs. In 1944, Morris Schappes, the later historian and former editor of Jewish Currents, wrote that “there is more in Emma Lazarus than is remembered.” Hollander’s selection, which is nothing less than a welcome act of recovery, proves that Schappes was right. Schappes concluded, “We need that more.” With this volume, we can begin to see if he was right about that, as well.
David Kaufmann is chair of philosophy and religious studies at George Mason University.
Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems
Edited by John Hollander
The Library of America, 2005, 200 pages, $20.