Emma Lazarus: Mother of Exiles

By Parmet, Harriet L. | Midstream, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview
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Emma Lazarus: Mother of Exiles


Parmet, Harriet L., Midstream


Emma Lazarus was a Sephardic Jew, a descendant of people expelled from Spain centuries before. Born July 22, 1849, in Manhattan, she died of cancer, at age 34, November 19, 1887. In her short life she left an incredible inheritance. She was the fourth of Esther (Nathan) and Moses Lazarus's seven children. Educated at home by private tutors in a wealthy and cultured environment, she readily took to mythology, music, American and European poetry and literature, as well as becoming fluent in German, French and Italian. Even as a child she exhibited a talent for poetry as well as a sensitivity and perceptiveness beyond her years. Her father, a financially successful sugar merchant, supported and encouraged her writing gifts. Emma first published poems in 1866, when she was only seventeen. Moses had Poems and Translations, which Emma wrote between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, printed for private circulation. Emma dedicated this volume "To My Father."

In 1868, after meeting the great man of American letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson, she sent a copy of her first book of poetry to him. Emerson, for whom Lazarus was the first and only Jew with whom he was ever to be acquainted, was most enthusiastic and the two enjoyed a remarkable correspondence during the ensuing decade, until Emerson's death in 1882. Lazarus turned to Emerson as her mentor, as he encouraged her to read more widely (Marcus Antoninus, Alfred Lloyd Tennyson, and Charles Wikin's translation of the "Bhagvat Geeta" were some of his recommendations). He also made suggestions about how to improve her lyrical voice.

Admetus and other Poems (1871) was dedicated to "my friend Ralph Waldo Emerson." (1) The title poem retells in blank verse the myth of Alcestis, whose strength and courage saved her husband from death. In Lazarus's version, the heroic willingness of Alcestis to sacrifice herself as the substitute the Fates had demanded becomes the crucial incident of the poem and the portrait is therefore a significant advance in the depiction of women in romantic poetry. In "Epoch," another poem, Lazarus personifies work as a woman. The maturity of Lazarus's thinking is reflected in "Heroes," which stresses the problems of the aftermath of war, rather than the presumed glory of the battlefield. Her reading of Emerson's poem of medieval persecution, "The Rabbi of Bacharach," had inspired her own poems on the subject. "Raschi in Prague" and "Death of Raschi" which were veiled indictments of modern European persecution. Considering his expansive interest in her work, Lazarus was shocked when Parnassus (1874), Emerson's encyclopedic poetic anthology failed to include any mention of her or her poetry. Emma's response was an angry letter voicing her extreme disappointment. However, student and mentor did reconcile and in 1876, Emma visited the Emersons in Concord, Massachusetts.

In 1876, Emerson not withstanding, Lazarus privately published "The Spagnoletto", a tragic verse drama founded on the life of the Neapolitan painter who bore that nickname. Critics have labeled this poem a masculine piece of work, not suited for the stage, but intended for reading. (2) However, Emerson's snub set in motion a radical re-envisioning of Lazarus's precarious position in American letters. Lazarus, thirty-three years old, could no longer safely assume that a Sephardic Jewish woman might join the pristine company of the New England men of letters. Until this time her correspondence had largely been limited to a transatlantic group of literary luminaries. Her attention now shifted to Jewish and Christian advocates of Jewish nationalism. At the same time, she became a startlingly productive poet, albeit almost exclusively devoted to the Jewish experience. (3)

Admetus and other Poems contains "In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport" and "How Long" as well as translations from the Italian and German. "In the Jewish Synagogue" is one of Lazarus's earliest creations expressive of a Jewish consciousness in which she envisions both a historical future for the Jews and a historical role for the Jewish poetry she understands herself to be writing.

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