Page 156 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 44

Basic HTML Version

144
JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
Emma Lazarus’ first volume of poems,7 written between the
ages of fourteen and seventeen, was published privately by her
father in 1867. At first glance this volume, consisting of some
thirty-five original poems, a sixty-page romance, translations of
Heine, Hugo, and Dumas, shows Emma’s sister to be correct in
the main. The poems are rather morbid and sentimental, with
the pull of Hellenism and Romanticism certainly far stronger
than that of Hebraism. And yet, even in 1867 one can detect
(even if in hindsight), some early signals — the translations of
Heine whose poetry and life play a great part in her journey
towards self discovery, and the poem “In the Jewish Synagogue at
Newport.” Later in 1882 she will write an essay on Henry W.
Longfellow and his poem “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport”
in which she will criticize the American poet for the very same
sentiments she herself had expressed. She had written in 1867,
“No signs of life are here: the very prayers/ described around are
in a language dead.” At this stage romantic Emma is moved by the
deadness of the ancient Hebrew people and its language — yet
for her the ancient Greek remains very much alive.
The poems in this first volume are derivative, sentimental, full
of artificial poeticisms and archaic language. Later, however,
they were quite accurately assessed by William James who wrote
to Emma in 1881 that, “the only volume of yours I have found in
Boston is your earliest o n e . . . . Taking the shorter ones that begin
the book all together, they leave a most beautiful impression of a
young girl making her way securely towards deep and rich
things.”8
EMERSON’S FRIENDSHIP
In 1871 Emma Lazarus published a second volume,
Admetus
and Other Poems.9
The dedication of the verse drama
Admetus
based on the Alcestis legend is “to my friend, Ralph Waldo
Emerson.” This friendship marks the beginning of a series of sig­
7 Emma Lazarus,
Poems and Translations, Written Between the Ages o f Fourteen and
Sixteen
(New York: H. O. Houghton, 1867).
8
Ralph L. Rusk, ed.,
Letters to Emma Lazarus in the Columbia University Library
(New York, 1939), p. 48. Hereinafter referred to as Letters to Emma Lazarus.
9 Emma Lazarus,
Admetus and Other Poems
(New York: Hurd and Houghton,
1871).