Born July 22, 1849; Died November 19, 1887.
One hesitates to lift the veil and throw the light upon a life so
hidden and a personality so withdrawn as that of Emma Lazarus; but
while her memory is fresh, and the echo of her songs still lingers
in these pages, we feel it a duty to call up her presence once more,
and to note the traits that made it remarkable and worthy to shine
out clearly before the world. Of dramatic episode or climax in her
life there is none; outwardly all was placid and serene, like an
untroubled stream whose depths alone hold the strong, quick tide.
The story of her life is the story of a mind, of a spirit, ever
seeking, ever striving, and pressing onward and upward to new truth
and light. Her works are the mirror of this progress. In reviewing
them, the first point that strikes us is the precocity, or rather
the spontaneity, of her poetic gift. She was a born singer; poetry
was her natural language, and to write was less effort than to speak,
for she was a shy, sensitive child, with strange reserves and
reticences, not easily putting herself "en rapport" with those around
her. Books were her world from her earliest years; in them she
literally lost and found herself. She was eleven years old when the
War of Succession broke out, which inspired her first lyric outbursts.
Her poems and translations written between the ages of fourteen and
seventeen were collected, and constituted her first published volume.
Crude and immature as these productions naturally were, and utterly
condemned by the writer's later judgment, they are, nevertheless,
highly interesting and characteristic, giving, as they do, the
keynote of much that afterwards unfolded itself in her life. One
cannot fail to be rather painfully impressed by the profound
melancholy pervading the book. The opening poem is "In Memoriam," -
on the death of a school friend and companion; and the two following
poems also have death for theme. "On a Lock of my Mother's Hair" gives
us reflections on growing old. These are the four poems written at
the age of fourteen. There is not a wholly glad and joyous strain in
the volume, and we might smile at the recurrence of broken vows,
broken hearts, and broken lives in the experience of this maiden just
entered upon her teens, were it not that the innocent child herself
is in such deadly earnest. The two long narrative poems, "Bertha" and
"Elfrida," are tragic in the extreme. Both are dashed off apparently
at white heat: "Elfrida," over fifteen hundred lines of blank verse,
in two weeks; "Bertha," in three and a half. We have said that Emma
Lazarus was a born singer, but she did not sing, like a bird, for
joy of being alive; and of being young, alas! there is no hint in
these youthful effusions, except inasmuch as this unrelieved gloom,
this ignorance of "values," so to speak, is a sign of youth, common
especially among gifted persons of acute and premature sensibilities,
whose imagination, not yet focused by reality, overreached the mark.
With Emma Lazarus, however, this sombre streak has a deeper root;
something of birth and temperament is in it - the stamp and heritage
of a race born to suffer. But dominant and fundamental though it was,
Hebraism was only latent thus far. It was classic and romantic art
that first attracted and inspired her. She pictures Aphrodite the
beautiful, arising from the waves, and the beautiful Apollo and his
loves, - Daphne, pursued by the god, changing into the laurel, and the
enamored Clytie into the faithful sunflower. Beauty, for its own
sake, supreme and unconditional, charmed her primarily and to the end.
Her restless spirit found repose in the pagan idea, - the absolute
unity and identity of man with nature, as symbolized in the Greek
myths, where every natural force becomes a person, and where, in turn,
persons pass with equal readiness and freedom back into nature again.
In this connection a name would suggest itself even if it did not
appear, - Heine, the Greek, Heine the Jew, Heine the Romanticist, as
Emma Lazarus herself has styled him; and already in this early volume
of hers we have trace of the kinship and affinity that afterwards so
plainly declared itself. Foremost among the translations are a
number of his songs, rendered with a finesse and a literalness that
are rarely combined. Four years later, at the age of twenty-one,
she published her second volume, "Admetus and Other Poems," which
at once took rank as literature both in America and England, and
challenged comparison with the work of established writers. Of
classic themes we have "Admetus" and "Orpheus," and of romantic the
legend of Tannhauser and of the saintly Lohengrin. All are treated
with an artistic finish that shows perfect mastery of her craft,
without detracting from the freshness and flow of her inspiration.
While sounding no absolutely new note in the world, she yet makes
us aware of a talent of unusual distinction, and a highly endowed
nature, - a sort of tact of sentiment and expression, an instinct
of the true and beautiful, and that quick intuition which is like
second-sight in its sensitiveness to apprehend and respond to external
stimulus. But it is not the purely imaginative poems in this volume
that most deeply interest us. We come upon experience of life in
these pages; not in the ordinary sense, however, of outward activity
and movement, but in the hidden undercurrent of being. "The epochs
of our life are not in the visible facts, but in the silent thoughts
by the wayside as we walk." This is the motto, drawn from Emerson,
which she chooses for her poem of "Epochs," which marks a pivotal
moment in her life. Difficult to analyze, difficult above all to
convey, if we would not encroach upon the domain of private and
personal experience, is the drift of this poem, or rather cycle of
poems, that ring throughout with a deeper accent and a more direct
appeal than has yet made itself felt. It is the drama of the human
soul, - "the mystic winged and flickering butterfly," "flitting
between earth and sky," in its passage from birth to death.
A golden morning of June! "Sweet empty sky without a stain."
Sunlight and mist and "ripple of rain-fed rills." "A murmur and a
"What simple things be these the soul to raise
To bounding joy, and make young pulses beat
With nameless pleasure, finding life so sweet!"
Such is youth, a June day, fair and fresh and tender with dreams and
longing and vague desire. The morn lingers and passes, but the noon
has not reached its height before the clouds begin to rise, the
sunshine dies, the air grows thick and heavy, the lightnings flash,
the thunder breaks among the hills, rolls and gathers and grows,
Behold, yon bolt struck home,
And over ruined fields the storm hath come."
Now we have the phases of the soul, - the shock and surprise of grief
in the face of the world made desolate. Loneliness and despair for
a space, and then, like stars in the night, the new births of the
spirit, the wonderful outcoming from sorrow: the mild light of patience
at first; hope and faith kindled afresh in the very jaws of evil;
the new meaning and worth of life beyond sorrow, beyond joy; and
finally duty, the holiest word of all, that leads at last to victory
and peace. The poem rounds and completes itself with the close of
"the long, rich day," and the release of
"The mystic winged and flickering butterfly,
A human soul, that drifts at liberty,
Ah! who can tell to what strange paradise,
To what undreamed-of fields and lofty skies!"
We have dwelt at some length upon this poem, which seems to us, in a
certain sense, subjective and biographical; but upon closer analysis
there is still another conclusion to arrive at. In "Epochs" we have,
doubtless, the impress of a calamity brought very near to the writer,
and profoundly working upon her sensibilities; not however by direct,
but reflex action, as it were, and through sympathetic emotion - the
emotion of the deeply-stirred spectator, of the artist, the poet who
lives in the lives of others, and makes their joys and their sorrows
Before dismissing this volume we may point out another clue as to the
shaping of mind and character. The poem of "Admetus" is dedicated
"to my friend Ralph Waldo Emerson." Emma Lazarus was between
seventeen and eighteen years of age when the writings of Emerson
fell into her hands, and it would be difficult to over-estimate the
impression produced upon her. As she afterwards wrote: "To how many
thousand youthful hearts has not his word been the beacon - nay,
more, the guiding star - that led them safely through periods of
mental storm and struggle!" Of no one is this more true than herself.
Left, to a certain extent, without compass or guide, without any
positive or effective religious training, this was the first great
moral revelation of her life. We can easily realize the chaos and
ferment of an over-stimulated brain, steeped in romantic literature,
and given over to the wayward leadings of the imagination. Who can
tell what is true, what is false, in a world where fantasy is as real
as fact? Emerson's word fell like truth itself, "a shaft of light
shot from the zenith," a golden rule of thought and action. His
books were bread and wine to her, and she absorbed them into her
very being. She felt herself invincibly drawn to the master, "that
fount of wisdom and goodness," and it was her great privilege during
these years to be brought into personal relations with him. From
the first he showed her a marked interest and sympathy, which became
for her one of the most valued possessions of her life. He criticised
her work with the fine appreciation and discrimination that made
him quick to discern the quality of her talent as well as of her
personality, and he was no doubt attracted by her almost transparent
sincerity and singleness of soul, as well as by the simplicity and
modesty that would have been unusual even in a person not gifted.
He constituted himself, in a way, her literary mentor, advised her
as to the books she should read and the attitude of mind she should
cultivate. For some years he corresponded with her very faithfully;
his letters are full of noble and characteristic utterances, and
give evidence of a warm regard that in itself was a stimulus and a
high incentive. But encouragement even from so illustrious a source
failed to elate the young poetess, or even to give her a due sense
of the importance and value of her work, or the dignity of her
vocation. We have already alluded to her modesty in her unwillingness
to assert herself or claim any prerogative, - something even morbid
and exaggerated, which we know not how to define, whether as over-
sensitiveness or indifference. Once finished, the heat and glow of
composition spent, her writings apparently ceased to interest her.
She often resented any allusion to them on the part of intimate
friends, and the public verdict as to their excellence could not
reassure or satisfy her. The explanation is not far, perhaps, to
seek. Was it not the "Ewig-Weibliche" that allows no prestige but
its own? Emma Lazarus was a true woman, too distinctly feminine to
wish to be exceptional, or to stand alone and apart, even by virtue
A word now as to her life and surroundings. She was one of a family
of seven, and her parents were both living. Her winters were passed
in New York, and her summers by the sea. In both places her life was
essentially quiet and retired. The success of her book had been
mainly in the world of letters. In no wise tricked out to catch the
public eye, her writings had not yet made her a conspicuous figure,
but were destined slowly to take their proper place and give her the
rank that she afterwards held.
For some years now almost everything that she wrote was published
in "Lippincott's Magazine," then edited by John Foster Kirk, and we
shall still find in her poems the method and movement of her life.
Nature is still the fount and mirror, reflecting, and again reflected,
in the soul. We have picture after picture, almost to satiety,
until we grow conscious of a lack of substance and body and of vital
play to the thought, as though the brain were spending itself in
dreamings and reverie, the heart feeding upon itself, and the life
choked by its own fullness without due outlet. Happily, however,
the heavy cloud of sadness has lifted, and we feel the subsidence
of waves after a storm. She sings "Matins:" -
"Does not the morn break thus,
Swift, bright, victorious,
With new skies cleared for us
Over the soul storm-tost?
Her night was long and deep,
Strange visions vexed her sleep,
Strange sorrows bade her weep,
Her faith in dawn was lost.
"No halt, no rest for her,
The immortal wanderer
From sphere to higher sphere
Toward the pure source of day.
The new light shames her fears,
Her faithlessness and tears,
As the new sun appears
To light her god-like way."
Nature is the perpetual resource and consolation. "'T is good to be
alive!" she says, and why? Simply,
"To see the light
That plays upon the grass, to feel (and sigh
With perfect pleasure) the mild breeze stir
Among the garden roses, red and white,
With whiffs of fragrancy."
She gives us the breath of the pines and of the cool, salt seas,
"illimitably sparkling." Her ears drink the ripple of the tide,
and she stops
"To gaze as one who is not satisfied
With gazing at the large, bright, breathing sea."
"Phantasies" (after Robert Schumann) is the most complete and perfect
poem of this period. Like "Epochs," it is a cycle of poems, and the
verse has caught the very trick of music, - alluring, baffling, and
evasive. This time we have the landscape of the night, the glamour
of moon and stars, - pictures half real and half unreal, mystic
imaginings, fancies, dreams, and the enchantment of "faerie," and
throughout the unanswered cry, the eternal "Wherefore" of destiny.
Dawn ends the song with a fine clear note, the return of day, night's
misty phantoms rolled away, and the world itself, again green,
sparkling and breathing freshness.
In 1874 she published "Alide," a romance in prose drawn from Goethe's
autobiography. It may be of interest to quote the letter she
received from Tourgeneff on this occasion: -
"Although, generally speaking, I do not think it advisable
to take celebrated men, especially poets and artists, as a
subject for a novel, still I am truly glad to say that I
have read your book with the liveliest interest. It is
very sincere and very poetical at the same time; the life
and spirit of Germany have no secrets for you, and your
characters are drawn with a pencil as delicate as it is
strong. I feel very proud of the approbation you give to
my works, and of the influence you kindly attribute to them
on your own talent; an author who write as you do is not
a pupil in art any more; he is not far from being himself
Charming and graceful words, of which the young writer was justly
About this time occurred the death of her mother, the first break in
the home and family circle. In August of 1876 she made a visit to
Concord, at the Emersons', memorable enough for her to keep a journal
and note down every incident and detail. Very touching to read now,
in its almost childlike simplicity, is this record of "persons that
pass and shadows that remain." Mr. Emerson himself meets her at the
station, and drives with her in his little one-horse wagon to his
home, the gray square house, with dark green blinds, set amidst noble
trees. A glimpse of the family, - "the stately, white-haired Mrs.
Emerson, and the beautiful, faithful Ellen, whose figure seems always
to stand by the side of her august father." Then the picture of
Concord itself, lovely and smiling, with its quiet meadows, quiet
slopes, and quietest of rivers. She meets the little set of Concord
people: Mr. Alcott, for whom she does not share Mr. Emerson's
enthusiasm; and William Ellery Channing, whose figure stands out like
a gnarled and twisted scrub-oak, - a pathetic, impossible creature,
whose cranks and oddities were submitted to on account of an innate
nobility of character. "Generally crabbed and reticent with
strangers, he took a liking to me," says Emma Lazarus. "The bond
of our sympathy was my admiration for Thoreau, whose memory he
actually worships, having been his constant companion in his best
days, and his daily attendant in the last years of illness and heroic
suffering. I do not know whether I was most touched by the thought
of the unique, lofty character that had inspired this depth and
fervor of friendship, or by the pathetic constancy and pure affection
of the poor, desolate old man before me, who tried to conceal his
tenderness and sense of irremediable loss by a show of gruffness and
philosophy. He never speaks of Thoreau's death," she says, "but
always 'Thoreau's loss,' or 'when I lost Mr. Thoreau,' or 'when Mr.
Thoreau went away from Concord;' nor would he confess that he missed
him, for there was not a day, an hour, a moment, when he did not
feel that his friend was still with him and had never left him. And
yet a day or two after," she goes on to say, "when I sat with him in
the sunlit wood, looking at the gorgeous blue and silver summer sky,
he turned to me and said: 'Just half of the world died for me when I
lost Mr. Thoreau. None of it looks the same as when I looked at it
with him.'. . . He took me through the woods and pointed out to me
every spot visited and described by his friend. Where the hut stood
is a little pile of stones, and a sign, 'Site of Thoreau's Hut,' and
a few steps beyond is the pond with thickly-wooded shore, - everything
exquisitely peaceful and beautiful in the afternoon light, and not
a sound to be heard except the crickets or the 'z-ing' of the locusts
which Thoreau has described. Farther on he pointed out to me, in
the distant landscape, a low roof, the only one visible, which was
the roof of Thoreau's birthplace. He had been over there many times,
he said, since he lost Mr. Thoreau, but had never gone in, - he was
afraid it might look lonely! But he had often sat on a rock in
front of the house and looked at it." On parting from his young
friend, Mr. Channing gave her a package, which proved to be a copy
of his own book on Thoreau, and the pocket compass which Thoreau
carried to the Maine woods and on all his excursions. Before leaving
the Emersons she received the proof-sheets of her drama of "The
Spagnoletto," which was being printed for private circulation. She
showed them to Mr. Emerson, who had expressed a wish to see them,
and, after reading them, he gave them back to her with the comment
that they were "good." She playfully asked him if he would not give
her a bigger word to take home to the family. He laughed, and said
he did not know of any; but he went on to tell her that he had
taken it up, not expecting to read it through, and had not been able
to put it down. Every word and line told of richness in the poetry,
he said, and as far as he could judge the play had great dramatic
opportunities. Early in the autumn "The Spagnoletto" appeared, - a
tragedy in five acts, the scene laid in Italy, 1655.
Without a doubt, every one in these days will take up with misgiving,
and like Mr. Emerson "not expecting to read it through," a five-act
tragedy of the seventeenth century, so far removed apparently from
the age and present actualities, - so opposed to the "Modernite,"
which has come to be the last word of art. Moreover, great names at
once appear; great shades arise to rebuke the presumptuous new-comer
in this highest realm of expression. "The Spagnoletto" has grave
defects that would probably preclude its ever being represented on
the stage. The denoument especially is unfortunate, and sins against
our moral and aesthetic instinct. The wretched, tiger-like father
stabs himself in the presence of his crushed and erring daughter, so
that she may forever be haunted by the horror and the retribution of
his death. We are left suspended, as it were, over an abyss, our
moral judgment thwarted, our humanity outraged. But "The Spagnoletto"
is, nevertheless, a remarkable production, and pitched in another
key from anything the writer has yet given us. Heretofore we have
only had quiet, reflective, passive emotion: now we have a storm
and sweep of passion for which we were quite unprepared. Ribera's
character is charged like a thunder-cloud with dramatic elements.
Maria Rosa is the child of her father, fired at a flash, "deaf, dumb,
and blind" at the touch of passion.
"Does love steal gently o'er our soul?"
"What if he come,
A cloud, a fire, a whirlwind?"
and then the cry:
"O my God!
This awful joy in mine own heart is love."
"While you are here the one thing real to me
In all the universe is love."
Exquisitely tender and refined are the love scenes - at the ball and
in the garden - between the dashing prince-lover in search of his
pleasure and the devoted girl with her heart in her eyes, on her
lips, in her hand. Behind them, always like a tragic fate, the
somber figure of the Spagnoletto, and over all the glow and color
and soul of Italy.
In 1881 appeared the translation of Heine's poems and ballads, which
was generally accepted as the best version of that untranslatable
poet. Very curious is the link between that bitter, mocking, cynic
spirit and the refined, gentle spirit of Emma Lazarus. Charmed by
the magic of his verse, the iridescent play of his fancy, and the
sudden cry of the heart piercing through it all, she is as yet unaware
or only vaguely conscious of the of the real bond between them: the
sympathy in the blood, the deep, tragic, Judaic passion of eighteen
hundred years that was smouldering in her own heart, soon to break
out and change the whole current of thought and feeling.
Already, in 1879, the storm was gathering. In a distant province
of Russia at first, then on the banks of the Volga, and finally in
Moscow itself, the old cry was raised, the hideous mediaeval charge
revived, and the standard of persecution unfurled against the Jews.
Province after province took it up. In Bulgaria, Servia, and, above
all, Roumania, where, we were told, the sword of the Czar had been
drawn to protect the oppressed, Christian atrocities took the place
of Moslem atrocities, and history turned a page backward into the dark
annals of violence and crime. And not alone in despotic Russia, but
in Germany, the seat of modern philosophic thought and culture, the
rage of Anti-Semitism broke out and spread with fatal ease and potency.
In Berlin itself tumults and riots were threatened. We in America
could scarcely comprehend the situation or credit the reports, and
for a while we shut our eyes and ears to the facts; but we were soon
rudely awakened from our insensibility, and forced to face the truth.
It was in England that the voice was first raised in behalf of
justice and humanity. In January, 1881, there appeared in the
"London Times" a series of articles, carefully compiled on the
testimony of eye-witnesses, and confirmed by official documents,
records, etc., giving an account of events that had been taking place
in southern and western Russia during a period of nine months,
between April and December of 1880. We do not need to recall the
sickening details. The headings will suffice: outrage, murder, arson,
and pillage, and the result, - 100,000 Jewish families made homeless
and destitute, and nearly $100,000,000 worth of property destroyed.
Nor need we recall the generous outburst of sympathy and indignation
from America. "It is not that it is the oppression of Jews by
Russia," said Mr. Evarts in the meeting at Chickering Hall Wednesday
evening, February 4; "it is that it is the oppression of men and
women, and we are men and women." So spoke civilized Christendom,
and for Judaism, - who can describe that thrill of brotherhood,
quickened anew, the immortal pledge of the race, made one again
through sorrow? For Emma Lazarus it was a trumpet call that awoke
slumbering and unguessed echoes. All this time she had been seeking
heroic ideals in alien stock, soulless and far removed; in pagan
mythology and mystic, mediaeval Christianity, ignoring her very
birthright, - the majestic vista of the past, down which, "high above
flood and fire," had been conveyed the precious scroll of the Moral
Law. Hitherto Judaism had been a dead letter to her. Of Portuguese
descent, her family had always been members of the oldest and most
orthodox congregation of New York, where strict adherence to custom
and ceremonial was the watchword of faith; but it was only during
her childhood and earliest years that she attended the synagogue,
and conformed to the prescribed rites and usages which she had now
long since abandoned as obsolete and having no bearing on modern
life. Nor had she any great enthusiasm for her own people. As late
as April, 1882, she published in "The Century Magazine" an article
written probably some months before, entitled "Was the Earl of
Beaconsfield a Representative Jew?" in which she is disposed to
accept as the type of the modern Jew the brilliant, successful, but
not over-scrupulous chevalier d'industrie. In view of subsequent,
or rather contemporaneous events, the closing paragraph of the article
in question is worthy of being cited: -
"Thus far their religion [the Jewish], whose mere preservation
under such adverse conditions seems little short of a miracle,
has been deprived of the natural means of development and
progress, and has remained a stationary force. The next
hundred years will, in our opinion be the test of their
vitality as a people; the phase of toleration upon which
they are only now entering will prove whether or not they
are capable of growth."
By a curious, almost fateful juxtaposition, in the same number of
the magazine appeared Madame Ragozin's defense of Russian barbarity,
and in the following (May) number Emma Lazarus's impassioned appeal
and reply, "Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism." From
this time dated the crusade that she undertook in behalf of her race,
and the consequent expansion of all her faculties, the growth of
spiritual power which always ensues when a great cause is espoused
and a strong conviction enters the soul. Her verse rang out as it
had never rung before, - a clarion note, calling a people to heroic
action and unity, to the consciousness and fulfillment of a grand
destiny. When has Judaism been so stirred as by "The Crowing of
the Red Cock" and
The Banner Of The Jew.
Wake, Israel, wake! Recall to-day
The glorious Maccabean rage,
The sire heroic, hoary-gray,
His five-fold lion-lineage;
The Wise, the Elect, the Help-of-God,
The Burst-of-Spring, the Avenging Rod.
From Mizpeh's mountain ridge they saw
Jerusalem's empty streets; her shrine
Laid waste where Greeks profaned the Law
With idol and with pagan sign.
Mourners in tattered black were there
With ashes sprinkled on their hair.
Then from the stony peak there rang
A blast to ope the graves; down poured
The Maccabean clan, who sang
Their battle anthem to the Lord.
Five heroes lead, and following, see
Ten thousand rush to victory!
Oh for Jerusalem's trumpet now,
To blow a blast of shattering power,
To wake the sleeper high and low,
And rouse them to the urgent hour!
No hand for vengeance, but to save,
A million naked swords should wave.
Oh, deem not dead that martial fire,
Say not the mystic flame is spent!
With Moses' law and David's lyre,
Your ancient strength remains unbent.
Let but an Ezra rise anew,
To lift the BANNER OF THE JEW!
A rag, a mock at first, - erelong
When men have bled and women wept,
To guard its precious folds from wrong,
Even they who shrunk, even they who slept,
Shall leap to bless it and to save.
Strike! for the brave revere the brave!
The dead forms burst their bonds and lived again. She sings "Rosh
Hashanah" (the Jewish New Year) and "Hanuckah (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 eight-fold 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 take fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born."
And "The New Ezekiel:" -
"What! can these dead bones live, whose sap is dried
By twenty scorching centuries of wrong?
Is this the House of Israel whose pride
Is as a tale that's told, an ancient song?
Are these ignoble relics all that live
Of psalmist, priest, and prophet? Can the breath
Of very heaven bid these bones revive,
Open the graves, and clothe the ribs of death?
Yea, Prophesy, the Lord hath said again:
Say to the wind, come forth and breathe afresh,
Even that they may live, upon these slain,
And bone to bone shall leap, and flesh to flesh.
The spirit is not dead, proclaim the word.
Where lay dead bones a host of armed men stand!
I ope your graves, my people, saith the Lord,
And I shall place you living in your land."
Her whole being renewed and refreshed itself at its very source. She
threw herself into the study of her race, its language, literature,
Breaking the outward crust, she pierced to the heart of the faith
and "the miracle" of its survival. What was it other than the ever-
present, ever-vivifying spirit itself, which cannot die, - the
religious and ethical zeal which fires the whole history of the
people, and of which she herself felt the living glow within her own
soul? She had come upon the secret and the genius of Judaism, - that
absolute interpenetration and transfusion of spirit with body and
substance which, taken literally, often reduces itself to a question
of food and drink, a dietary regulation, and again, in proper
incarnates itself and shines out before humanity in the prophets,
teachers, and saviors of mankind.
Those were busy, fruitful years for Emma Lazarus, who worked, not
with the pen alone, but in the field of practical and beneficent
activity. For there was an immense task to accomplish. The tide of
immigration had set in, and ship after ship came laden with hunted
human beings flying from their fellow-men, while all the time, like
a tocsin, rang the terrible story of cruelty and persecution, - horrors
that the pen refuses to dwell upon. By the hundreds and thousands
they flocked upon our shores, - helpless, innocent victims of injustice
and oppression, panic-stricken in the midst of strange and utterly
Emma Lazarus came into personal contact with these people, and
visited them in their refuge on Ward Island. While under the
influence of all the emotions aroused by this great crisis in the
history of her race, she wrote the "Dance of Death," a drama of
persecution of the twelfth century, founded upon the authentic
records, - unquestionably her finest work in grasp and scope, and,
above all, in moral elevation and purport. The scene is laid in
Nordhausen, a free city in Thuringia, where the Jews, living, as the
deemed, in absolute security and peace, were caught up in the wave of
persecution that swept over Europe at that time. Accused of poisoning
the wells and causing the pestilence, or black death, as it was called,
they were condemned to be burned.
We do not here intend to enter upon a critical or literary analysis
of the play, or to point out dramatic merits or defects, but we
should like to make its readers feel with us the holy ardor and
impulse of the writer and the spiritual import of the work. The
action is without surprise, the doom fixed from the first; but so
glowing is the canvas with local and historic color, so vital and
intense the movement, so resistless, the "internal evidence," if we
may call it thus, penetrating its very substance and form, that we are
swept along as by a wave of human sympathy and grief. In contrast
with "The Spagnoletto," how large is the theme and how all-embracing
the catastrophe! In place of the personal we have the drama of
the universal. Love is only a flash now, - a dream caught sight of
and at once renounced at a higher claim.
"Have you no smile to welcome love with, Liebhaid?
Why should you tremble?
Prince, I am afraid!
Afraid of my own heart, my unfathomed joy,
A blasphemy against my father's grief,
My people's agony!
"What good shall come, forswearing kith and God,
To follow the allurements of the heart?"
asks the distracted maiden, torn between her love for he princely
wooer and her devotion to the people among whom her lot has been cast.
How shall I pray for strength to love him less
Than mine own soul!
No more of that,
I am all Israel's now. Till this cloud pass,
I have no thought, no passion, no desire,
Save for my people."
Individuals perish, but great ideas survive, - fortitude and courage,
and that exalted loyalty and devotion to principle which alone are
worth living and dying for.
The Jews pass by in procession - men, women, and children - on their
way to the flames, to the sound of music, and in festal array,
the gold and silver vessels, the roll of the law, the perpetual lamp
and the seven branched silver candle-stick of the synagogue. The
crowd hoot and jeer at them.
"The misers! they will take their gems and gold
Down to the grave!"
"Let us rejoice"
sing the Jewish youths in chorus; and the maidens: -
"Our feet stand within thy gates, O Zion!
Within thy portals, O Jerusalem!"
The flames rise and dart among them; their garments wave, their jewels
flash, as they dance and sing in the crimson blaze. The music ceases,
a sound of crashing boards is heard and a great cry, - "Hallelujah!"
What a glory and consecration of the martyrdom! Where shall we find a
more triumphant vindication and supreme victory of spirit over matter?
"I see, I see,
How Israel's ever-crescent glory makes
These flames that would eclipse it dark as blots
Of candle-light against the blazing sun.
We die a thousand deaths, - drown, bleed, and burn.
Our ashes are dispersed unto the winds.
Yet the wild winds cherish the sacred seed,
The fire refuseth to consume.
. . . . . . . . .
Even as we die in honor, from our death
Shall bloom a myriad heroic lives,
Brave through our bright example, virtuous
Lest our great memory fall in disrepute."
The "Dance to Death" was published, along with other poems and
translations from the Hebrew poets of mediaeval Spain, in a small
column entitled "Songs of a Semite." The tragedy was dedicated, "In
profound veneration and respect to the memory of George Eliot, the
illustrious writer who did most among the artists of our day towards
elevating and ennobling the spirit of Jewish nationality."
For this was the idea that had caught the imagination of Emma Lazarus,
- a restored and independent nationality and repatriation in Palestine.
In her article in "The Century" of February, 1883, on the "Jewish
Problem," she says: -
"I am fully persuaded that all suggested solutions other
than this are but temporary palliatives. . . . The idea
formulated by George Eliot has already sunk into the minds
of many Jewish enthusiasts, and it germinates with miraculous
rapidity. 'The idea that I am possessed with,' says Deronda,
'is that of restoring a political existence to my people;
making them a nation again, giving them a national centre,
such as the English have, though they, too, are scattered
over the face of the globe. That task which presents itself
to me as a duty. . . . I am resolved to devote my life to
it. AT THE LEAST, I MAY AWAKEN A MOVEMENT IN OTHER MINDS
SUCH HAS BEEN AWAKENED IN MY OWN.' Could the noble
prophetess who wrote the above words have lived but till to-
day to see the ever-increasing necessity of adopting her
inspired counsel, . . .she would have been herself astonished
at the flame enkindled by her seed of fire, and the practical
shape which the movement projected by her poetic vision is
beginning to assume."
In November of 1882 appeared her first "Epistle to the Hebrews," -
one of a series of articles written for the "American Hebrew,"
published weekly through several months. Addressing herself now
to a Jewish audience, she sets forth without reserve her views and
hopes for Judaism, now passionately holding up the mirror for the
shortcomings and peculiarities of her race. She says: -
"Every student of the Hebrew language is aware that we have
in the conjugation of our verbs a mode known as the 'intensive
voice,' which, by means of an almost imperceptible modification
of vowel-points, intensifies the meaning of the primitive root.
A similar significance seems to attach to the Jews themselves
in connection with the people among whom they dwell. They are
the 'intensive form' of any nationality whose language and
customs they adopt. . . . Influenced by the same causes, they
represent the same results; but the deeper lights and shadows
of the Oriental temperament throw their failings, as well as
their virtues, into more prominent relief."
In drawing the epistles to a close, February 24, 1883, she thus
summarizes the special objects she has had in view: -
"My chief aim has been to contribute my mite towards arousing
that spirit of Jewish enthusiasm which might manifest itself:
First, in a return to varied pursuits and broad system of
physical and intellectual education adopted by our ancestors;
Second, in a more fraternal and practical movement towards
alleviating the sufferings of oppressed Jews in countries less
favored than our own; Third, in a closer and wider study of
Hebrew literature and history and finally, in a truer recognition
of the large principals of religion, liberty, and law upon
which Judaism is founded, and which should draw into harmonious
unity Jews of every shade of opinion."
Her interest in Jewish affairs was at its height when she planned a
visit abroad, which had been a long-cherished dream, and May 15, 1883,
she sailed for England, accompanied by a younger sister. We have
difficulty in recognizing the tragic priestess we have been portraying
in the enthusiastic child of travel who seems new-born into a new
world. From the very outset she is in a maze of wonder and delight.
At sea she writes: -
"Our last day on board ship was a vision of beauty from
morning till night, - the sea like a mirror and the sky
dazzling with light. In the afternoon we passed a ship
in full sail, near enough to exchange salutes and cheers.
After tossing about for six days without seeing a human
being, except those on our vessel, even this was a sensation.
Then an hour or two before sunset came the great sensation
of - land! At first, nothing but a shadow on the far horizon,
like the ghost of a ship; two or three widely scattered rocks
which were the promontories of Ireland, and sooner than we
expected we were steaming along low-lying purple hills."
The journey to Chester gives her "the first glimpse of mellow
England," - a surprise which is yet no surprise, so well known and
familiar does it appear. Then Chester, with its quaint, picturesque
streets, "like the scene of a Walter Scott novel, the cathedral
planted in greenness, and the clear, gray river where a boatful of
scarlet dragoons goes gliding by." Everything is a picture for her
special benefit. She "drinks in, at every sense, the sights, sounds,
and smells, and the unimaginable beauty of it all." Then the
bewilderment of London, and a whirl of people, sights, and
She was received with great distinction by the Jews, and many of the
leading men among them warmly advocated her views. But it was not
alone from her own people that she met with exceptional consideration.
She had the privilege of seeing many of the most eminent personages
of the day, all of whom honored her with special and personal regard.
There was, no doubt, something that strongly attracted people to her
at this time, - the force of her intellect at once made itself felt,
while at the same time the unaltered simplicity and modesty of her
character, and her readiness and freshness of enthusiasm, kept her
still almost like a child.
She makes a flying visit to Paris, where she happens to be on the 14th
of July, the anniversary of the storming of the Bastile, and of the
beginning of the republic; she drives to Versailles, "that gorgeous
shell of royalty, where the crowd who celebrate the birth of the
republic wander freely through the halls and avenues, and into the
most sacred rooms of the king. . . . There are ruins on every side in
Paris," she says; "ruins of the Commune, or the Siege, or the
Revolution; it is terrible - it seems as if the city were seared with
fire and blood."
Such was Paris to her then, and she hastens back to her beloved London,
starting from there on the tour through England that has been mapped
out for her. "A Day in Surrey with William Morris," published in
"The Century Magazine," describes her visit to Merton Abbey, the
old Norman monastery, converted into a model factory by the poet-
humanitarian, who himself received her as his guest, conducted her
all over the picturesque building and garden, and explained to her
his views of art and his aims for the people.
She drives through Kent, "where the fields, valleys, and slopes are
garlanded with hops and ablaze with scarlet poppies." Then Canterbury,
Windsor, and Oxford, Stratford, Warwick, the valley of the Wye, Wells,
Exeter, and Salisbury, - cathedral after cathedral. Back to London,
and then north through York, Durham, and Edinburgh, and on the 15th
of September she sails for home. We have merely named the names,
for it is impossible to convey an idea of the delight and importance
of this trip, "a crescendo of enjoyment," as she herself calls it.
Long after, in strange, dark hours of suffering, these pictures of
travel arose before her, vivid and tragic even in their hold and
spell upon her.
The winter of 1883-84 was not especially productive. She wrote a
few reminiscences of her journey and occasional poems on the Jewish
themes, which appeared in the "American Hebrew;" but for the most
part gave herself up to quiet retrospect and enjoyment with her
friends of the life she had had a glimpse of, and the experience she
had stored, - a restful, happy period. In August of the same year
she was stricken with a severe and dangerous malady, from which she
slowly recovered, only to go through a terrible ordeal and affliction.
Her father's health, which had long been failing, now broke down
completely, and the whole winter was one long strain of acute anxiety,
which culminated in his death, in March, 1885. The blow was a
crushing one for Emma. Truly, the silver cord was loosed, and the
golden bowl broken. Life lost its meaning and charm. Her father's
sympathy and pride in her work had been her chief incentive and
ambition, and had spurred her on when her own confidence and spirit
failed. Never afterwards did she find complete and spontaneous
expression. She decided to go abroad as the best means of regaining
composure and strength and sailed once more in May for England,
where she was welcomed now by the friends she had made, almost as
to another home. She spent the summer very quietly at Richmond, an
ideally beautiful spot in Yorkshire, where she soon felt the
beneficial influence of her peaceful surroundings. "The very air
seems to rest one here," she writes; and inspired by the romantic
loveliness of the place, she even composed the first few chapters
of a novel, begun with a good deal of dash and vigor, but soon
abandoned, for she was still struggling with depression and gloom.
"I have neither ability, energy, nor purpose," she writes. "It is
impossible to do anything, so I am forced to set it aside for the
present; whether to take it up again or not in the future remains
to be seen."
In the autumn she goes on the Continent, visiting the Hague, which
"completely fascinates" her, and where she feels "stronger and more
cheerful" than she has "for many a day." Then Paris, which this time
amazes her "with its splendor and magnificence. All the ghosts of
the Revolution are somehow laid," she writes, and she spends six
weeks here enjoying to the full the gorgeous autumn weather, the
sights, the picture galleries, the bookshops, the whole brilliant
panorama of the life; and early in December she starts for Italy.
And now once more we come upon that keen zest of enjoyment, that
pure desire and delight of the eyes, which are the prerogative of
the poet, - Emma Lazarus was a poet. The beauty of the world, - what
a rapture and intoxication it is, and how it bursts upon her in the
very land of beauty, "where Dante and Petrarch trod!" A magic glow
colours it all; no mere blues and greens anymore, but a splendor of
purple and scarlet and emerald; "each tower, castle, and village
shining like a jewel; the olive, the fig, and at your feet the roses,
growing in mid-December." A day in Pisa seems like a week, so crowded
is it with sensations and unforgettable pictures. Then a month in
Florence, which is still more entrancing with its inexhaustible
treasures of beauty and art; and finally Rome, the climax of it all, -
"wiping out all other places and impressions, and opening
a whole new world of sensations. I am wild with the
excitement of this tremendous place. I have been here a
week, and have seen the Vatican and the Capitoline Museums,
and the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's, besides the ruins
on the streets and on the hills, and the graves of Shelley
"It is all heart-breaking. I don't only mean those beautiful
graves, overgrown with acanthus and violets, but the mutilated
arches and columns and dumb appealing fragments looming up in
the glowing sunshine under the Roman blue sky."
True to her old attractions, it is pagan Rome that appeals to her
most strongly, -
"and the far-away past, that seems so sad and strange and
near. I am even out of humor with pictures; a bit of broken
stone or a fragment of a bas-relief, or a Corinthian column
standing out against this lapis-lazuli sky, or a tremendous
arch, are the only things I can look at for the moment, -
except the Sistine Chapel, which is as gigantic as the rest,
and forces itself upon you with equal might."
Already, in February, spring is in the air; "the almond-trees are in
bloom, violets cover the grass, and oh! the divine, the celestial,
the unheard-of beauty of it all!" It is almost a pang for her, "with
its strange mixture of longing and regret and delight," and in the
midst of it she says, "I have to exert all my strength not to lose
myself in morbidness and depression."
Early in March she leaves Rome, consoled with the thought of returning
the following winter. In June she was in England again, and spent
the summer at Malvern. Disease was no doubt already beginning to
prey upon her, for she was oppressed at times by a languor and
heaviness amounting almost to lethargy. When she returned to London,
however, in September, she felt quite well again, and started for
another tour in Holland, which she enjoyed as much as before. She
then settled in Paris, to await the time when she could return to
Italy. But she was attacked at once with grave and alarming symptoms,
that betokened a fatal end to her malady. Entirely ignorant, however,
of the danger that threatened her, she kept up courage and hope,
made plans for the journey, and looked forward to setting out at
any moment. But the weeks passed and the months also; slowly and
gradually the hope faded. The journey to Italy must be given up;
she was not in condition to be brought home, and she reluctantly
resigned herself to remain where she was and "convalesce," as she
confidently believed, in the spring. Once again came the analogy,
which she herself pointed out now, to Heine on his mattress-grave
in Paris. She, too, the last time she went out, dragged herself to
the Louvre, to the feet of the Venus, "the goddess without arms, who
could not help." Only her indomitable will and intense desire to
live seemed to keep her alive. She sunk to a very low ebb, but, as
she herself expressed it, she "seemed to have always one little
window looking out into life," and in the spring she rallied
sufficiently to take a few drives and to sit on the balcony of her
apartment. She came back to life with a feverish sort of thirst and
avidity. "No such cure for pessimism," she says, "as a severe
illness; the simplest pleasures are enough, - to breathe the air and
see the sun."
Many plans were made for leaving Paris, but it was finally decided
to risk the ocean voyage and bring her home, and accordingly she
sailed July 23rd, arriving in New York on the last day of that month.
She did not rally after this; and now began her long agony, full
of every kind of suffering, mental and physical. Only her intellect
seemed kindled anew, and none but those who saw her during the last
supreme ordeal can realize that wonderful flash and fire of the
spirit before its extinction. Never did she appear so brilliant.
Wasted to a shadow, and between acute attacks of pain, she talked
about art, poetry, the scenes of travel, of which her brain was so
full, and the phases of her own condition, with an eloquence for
which even those who knew her best were quite unprepared. Every
faculty seemed sharpened and every sense quickened as the "strong
deliveress" approached, and the ardent soul was released from the
frame that could no longer contain it.
We cannot restrain a feeling of suddenness and incompleteness and
a natural pang of wonder and regret for a life so richly and so
vitally endowed thus cut off in its prime. But for us it is not
fitting to question or repine, but rather to rejoice in the rare
possession that we hold. What is any life, even the most rounded
and complete, but a fragment and a hint? What Emma Lazarus might
have accomplished, had she been spared, it is idle and even
ungrateful to speculate. What she did accomplish has real and
peculiar significance. It is the privilege of a favored few that
every fact and circumstance of their individuality shall add lustre
and value to what they achieve. To be born a Jewess was a distinction
for Emma Lazarus, and she in turn conferred distinction upon her
race. To be born a woman also lends a grace and a subtle magnetism
to her influence. Nowhere is there contradiction or incongruity.
Her works bear the imprint of her character, and her character of
her works; the same directness and honesty, the same limpid purity
of tone, and the same atmosphere of things refined and beautiful.
The vulgar, the false, and the ignoble, - she scarcely comprehended
them, while on every side she was open and ready to take in and
respond to whatever can adorn and enrich life. Literature was no
mere "profession" for her, which shut out other possibilities; it
was only a free, wide horizon and background for culture. She was
passionately devoted to music, which inspired some of her best poems;
and during the last years of her life, in hours of intense physical
suffering, she found relief and consolation in listening to the
strains of Bach and Beethoven. When she went abroad, painting was
revealed to her, and she threw herself with the same ardor and
enthusiasm into the study of the great masters; her last work (left
unfinished) was a critical analysis of the genius and personality
And now, at the end, we ask, Has the grave really closed over all
these gifts? Has that eager, passionate striving ceased, and "is
the rest silence?"
Who knows? But would we break, if we could, that repose, that
silence and mystery and peace everlasting?