Friday, June 27, 2008

HC on Longfellow's 'The Jewish Cemetery at Newport'

Thought we were all done with poetry? Not just yet!

Today, guest commentator HC offers reflections on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem 'The Jewish Cemetery at Newport,' published in the 1858 collection 'Birds of Passage.' The poem was inspired by Longfellow's visit in 1852 to the oldest Jewish cemetery in the U.S., in Newport, Rhode Island.

The text of the poem is reproduced immediately below, followed by HC's commentary. (For explanatory notes on particular references in the poem, go to [sorry, but it didn't work as a hyperlink].)

The Jewish Cemetery at Newport

How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves,
Close by the street of this fair seaport town,
Silent beside the never-silent waves,
At rest in all this moving up and down!

The trees are white with dust, that o'er their sleep
Wave their broad curtains in the south-wind's breath,
While underneath such leafy tents they keep
The long, mysterious Exodus of Death.

And these sepulchral stones, so old and brown,
That pave with level flags their burial-place,
Seem like the tablets of the Law, thrown down
And broken by Moses at the mountain's base.

The very names recorded here are strange,
Of foreign accent, and of different climes;
Alvares and Rivera interchange
With Abraham and Jacob of old times.

"Blessed be God! for he created Death!"
The mourners said, "and Death is rest and peace";
Then added, in the certainty of faith,
"And giveth Life that never more shall cease."

Closed are the portals of their Synagogue,
No Psalms of David now the silence break,
No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue
In the grand dialect the Prophets spake.

Gone are the living, but the dead remain,
And not neglected; for a hand unseen,
Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,
Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.

How came they here? What burst of Christian hate,
What persecution, merciless and blind,
Drove o'er the sea--that desert desolate--
These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?

They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,
Ghetto and Judenstrass, in mirk and mire;
Taught in the school of patience to endure
The life of anguish and the death of fire.

All their lives long, with the unleavened bread
And bitter herbs of exile and its fears,
The wasting famine of the heart they fed,
And slaked its thirst with marah of their tears.

Anathema maranatha! was the cry
That rang from town to town, from street to street;
At every gate the accursed Mordecai
Was mocked and jeered, and spurned by Christian feet.

Pride and humiliation hand in hand
Walked with them through the world where'er they went;
Trampled and beaten were they as the sand,
And yet unshaken as the continent.

For in the background figures vague and vast
Of patriarchs and of prophets rose sublime,
And all the great traditions of the Past
They saw reflected in the coming time.

And thus forever with reverted look
The mystic volume of the world they read,
Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book,
Till life became a Legend of the Dead.

But ah! what once has been shall be no more!
The groaning earth in travail and in pain
Brings forth its races, but does not restore,
And the dead nations never rise again.

What is so good about this embarrassing poem? Why would Helen Vendler circulate it (as she did last year, without comment) to everyone with a Harvard University email address as part of an apparently abortive campaign (I never got another poem from her) to disseminate Great Poetry?

Longfellow seems intent on treating the Jews the way James Fenimore Cooper treated the Mohicans, romanticizing their disappearance so eagerly and prematurely that his motives might be questioned. At least Cooper celebrates the noble qualities and skills of the Mohicans; Longfellow has almost nothing good to say about the Jews other than that they had unshaken faith in eternal life, which, as the Maine Historical Society website points out in its commentary on the poem (Longfellow was born in Maine), is probably more reflective of Longfellow’s comfy Protestantism than of Jewish theology. It is this faith that allows the Jews to endure persecution and preserve their pride (“Pride and humiliation walked hand in hand”), and the wellspring of this faith is the greatness of the Jews’ past, which “they saw reflected in the coming time.” Again, more Protestant than Jewish: true, the Jews look forward to the coming of the Messiah, but Longfellow gives this a second-coming gloss that is distinctly Christian. (The prophet Elijah does return in Judaism, at every Passover, and Longfellow may have this in mind when he refers to the Seder, with its unleavened bread and bitter herbs, but the Messiah himself, whom Elijah heralds, just comes once.)

The real kicker is near the end, with Longfellow’s equation of the “backward” (right to left) reading of Hebrew with this “reverted look” to the past. The idea that one’s method of reading conditions one’s world view is nice, but Longfellow goes on to equate this backward look (apparently forgetting its corollary look to the future) with death (“Till life became a Legend of the Dead”) and so in effect blames the Jews for their own demise: they were obsessed with death, ergo they died off. (This recalls the prior invocation of Moses’s disgust with his own people via the analogy of flat gravestones to thrown-down tablets.) The saving grace – the phrase is appropriate given that Longfellow has turned the Jews into Christians (and by the way, I see on Google that Vendler gave a lecture on Victorian Jews for Jesus, so maybe I’m on her wavelength here) – the saving grace, I was saying, is that this die-off seems part of a natural cycle and so perhaps not entirely self-inflicted: “The groaning earth in travail and in pain / Brings forth its races, but does not restore, / And the dead nations never rise again.”

Here you might object that this reading of the poem as a piece of disguised anti-Semitism is unfair, and maybe it is. After all, the poem is a denunciation of Christian anti-Semitism: they mock and jeer, spurn and hate, beat and trample, exile and burn the Jews. It is clear-eyed about that, and therefore cynical about history, which obviously does not punish those who deserve it. Interesting that the word God only appears once, within an imagined quotation: “Blessed by God! For he created Death!” Not a great endorsement. Is this a Godless poem? I hope so.

In any case, I have not answered my question: what is so good about it? I’m not sure it’s a great poem but there are certainly a number of great lines.

“How strange it seems!” A natural way to start a lyric, initiating a flow of thought that continues nicely through the poem.

“At rest in all this moving up and down.” The image is concrete, rendering the conceit of the poem (Jew vs. world) utterly physical, and the language is stunningly simple, every word a monosyllable except one. It blows the previous line, with its hackneyed repetition-via-epithet (silent, never-silent), out of the water.

“The long, mysterious Exodus of Death.” Nice phrase, esp. with the verb keep.

“Alvares and Rivera interchange / with Abraham and Jacob of old times.” This is the declaration of a device of simple coupling that runs throughout the poem, starting with “up and down” and continuing: old and brown, rest and peace, merciless and blind, Ishmaels and Hagars, Ghetto and Judenstrass, mirk and mire, mocked and jeered, pride and humiliation, and that’s not even half of them. A poem of couplets. Even more than that, I like the glossolalia of Alvares-Rivera, which is picked up later by “Anathema maranatha!” In these near-palindromes the Jews get their revenge, infecting Longfellow’s own language with their Hebraic reversion.

“In the grand dialect the Prophets spake.” It’s the last word I like, with its spitting sound and its gone-native quality: an obsolete word (the only one in the poem) to invoke an obsolete language. Here Longfellow declares that he loves Hebrew. If it has infected his language, he has welcomed it. (Actually I like this whole quatrain. Nice rhyme of synagogue and Decalogue.)

“Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book.” Again, the simplicity is stunning. What a great, irreligious way to refer to the Bible (for what other book could he possibly be talking about?).

“And the dead nations never rise again.” Here Longfellow maintains his strict syllable count (ten per line) but finally upends his iambs to come down hard on DEAD. Which is the whole point: the Jews are dead.

I have a feeling the poem inspired at least two others about unredemptive death: Robert Lowell’s “A Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” and possibly Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death” (compare uses of the verb drove in the two poems). Not a bad afterlife.

-- HC


zara said...

I was actually content to see that a great poet like him wrote a poem at a time when the Jewish population was so small. I makes me happy to think that anyone who reads it will say: "well he was so wrong, they are alive and kicking plus they have a country of their own, in spite of it all"
The fact is that he wrote then about the persecution of Jews while most ignored it and many were aware of it only after the holocaust.

LFC said...

Thanks for your comment.

Jack said...

Perhaps Longfellow was wrong about Jewish survival. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on that question. When I read about the attitude of Richard Holbrook, or his wife Katie Marton, or His boss, Madelyn Albright to their Jewish heritage, I think perhaps Longfellow might have been right--that Jews can survive only by being being insular and refusing to acknowledge the learning or understanding of the secular world, and if that is so, they have no reason to survive. I hope though that Longfellow was wrong though his poem is great. Instead I look to another great poem, this one by Randall Jarrell:

Jews at Haifa
The freighter, gay with rust,
Coasts to a bare wharf of the harbor,
From the funnel's shade (the arbor
Of gourds from which the prophet, without trust,
Watched his old enemies,
The beings of this earth) I scrutinize

The hundreds at the rail
Lapped in the blue blaze of this sea
Who stare till their looks fail
At the earth that they are promised; silently
See the sand-bagged machine-guns,
The red-kneed soldiers blinking in the sun.

A machine-gun away
Are men with our faces: we are torn
With the live blaze of day --
Till we feel shifting, wrenched apart, the worn
Named stones of our last knowledge:
That all men wish our death. Here on the edge

Of the graves of Europe
We believe: we are not dead;
It seems to us that hope
Is possible -- that even mercy is permitted
To men on this earth,
To Jews on this earth... But at Cyprus, the red earth,

The huts, the trembling wire
That wreathes us, are to us familiar
As death. All night, the fires
Float their sparks up to the yellow stars;
From the steel, stilted tower
The light sweeps over us. We whisper: Ours.

Ours; and the stones slide home.
There is no hope; "in all this world
There is no other wisdom
Than ours: we have understood the world,"
We think; but hope, in dread
Search for one doubt, and whisper, "Truly, we are not dead."

LFC said...

Four points:

1) You say the jury is still out on the question of Jewish survival. I doubt it. The more pressing question, in my opinion, is whether the gov't of Israel will continue to act in ways that run contrary to its own best interests, not to mention international law.

2)I'm not sure I agree with your characterization of Longfellow's message in his poem, but since HC wrote the post, I'll let HC respond on this point should HC wish to do so.

3)Re your mention of Richard Holbrooke's "attitude to [his] Jewish heritage," I don't know exactly what you are referring to. There was no mention of this in the long and very good Wash. Post obituary by Rajiv Chandresekaran, nor in anything else I have read.

4) More generally, one can posit a spectrum of attitudes of contemporary American Jews toward their 'Jewish heritage,' from 1)deliberate concealment, 2)conversion to another religion, 3)indifference (as regards religious observance, cultural affiliation etc), 4) religious nonobservance but cultural identification, 5) religious and cultural identification (in degrees ranging from moderate to intense). As someone whose current position is somewhere between (3) and (4), and probably closer to (3), I can't say I find any of these attitudes objectionable, with the possible exception of (1) (i.e., deliberate concealment).