Emma Lazarus

Emma LazarusEmma Lazarus (1849-1887) was an American poet whose work explored Jewish culture in America.

Lazarus was among the intellectual elite who summered in Newport in the days before it became a fashionable resort. She was a member of Julia Ward Howe's Town and Country Club, which met at members' homes to read papers and discuss philosophy.

Lazarus was well-versed in American and European literatures and languages. She adapted German, Italian, and Jewish poems into English. Her first volume of verse, Poems and Translations, was published in 1866 when she was seventeen. Her mentors included American poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and fellow Newporter Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

In 1871, Lazarus published Admetus and Other Poems, which included "In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport." The poem reflects on the Jewish community in Newport, and its meeting place, Touro Synagogue.

In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport

Here, where the noises of the busy town,
The ocean's plunge and roar can enter not,
We stand and gaze around with tearful awe,
And muse upon the consecrated spot.

No signs of life are here: the very prayers
Inscribed around are in a language dead;
The light of the "perpetual lamp" is spent
That an undying radiance was to shed.

What prayers were in this temple offered up,
Wrung from sad hearts that knew no joy on earth,
By these lone exiles of a thousand years,
From the fair sunrise land that gave them birth!

Now as we gaze, in this new world of light,
Upon this relic of the days of old,
The present vanishes, and tropic bloom
And Eastern towns and temples we behold.

Again we see the patriarch with his flocks,
The purple seas, the hot blue sky o'erhead,
The slaves of Egypt—omens, mysteries—
Dark fleeing hosts by flaming angels led.

A wondrous light upon a sky-kissed mount,
A man who reads Jehovah's written law,
'Midst blinding glory and effulhence rare,
Unto a people probe with reverent awe.

The pride of luxury's barbaric pomp,
In the rich court of royal Solomon—
Alas! we wake: one scene alone remains—
The exiles by the streams of Babylon.

Our softened voices send us back again
But mournful echoes through the empty hall;
Our footsteps have a strange, unnatural sound,
And with unwonted gentleness they fall.

The weary ones, the sad, the suffering,
All found their comfort in the holy place,
And children's gladness and men's gratitude
Took voice and mingled in the chant of praise.

The funeral and the marriage, now, alas!
We know not which is sadder to recall;
For youth and happiness have followed age,
And green grass lieth gently over all.

And still the sacred shrine is holy yet,
With its lone floors where reverent feet once trod.
Take off your shoes as by the burning bush,
Before the mystery of death and God.

Another well-known poem, "The New Colossus," celebrates the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island. It appears on a bronze tablet at the base of the Statue of Liberty.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, ©2001-2003