Page 166 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 44

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
Not only did Emma Lazarus begin to express her ideas in pow­
erful prose, but her poetry too underwent a transformation. As
early as 1877 she had written quite overtly of her decision to fol­
low a specific course. In the poem “The Choice” she tells us that in
a dream she sees a spirit who is offered two paths. Most who
choose the one that “in velvet-flower slopes easily to every earthly
prize” will arrive at peace and power. The other path, however, is
where the spirit shall “stumble, totter, weep and bleed, / All men
shall hate and hound thee and thy seed, / Thy portion be the
wound, the stripe, the scourge.” The spirit is commanded to
“choose now for all the ages.” The spirit chooses this “grim path”
and she recognized him in “The pale, great martyr-forehead
shadowy-curled, / The glowing eyes that had renounced the
world, / Disgraced, despised, immortal Israel.” In 1880 she pro­
duced a pair of poems (that may have been inspired by Heine’s
Rabbi of Bacherach
or perhaps by Browning’s monologues “Rabbi
Ben Ezra” and “Jochanan Hakkadosh”) — “Raschi in Prague”
and “The Death of Raschi” in which she celebrates the intellect
and commemorates the legendary martyrdom of the great medi­
eval Talmudist.
It is now, in 1881, that she sends her earlier work “The Dance
to Death” to Philip Cowen, the editor of
The American Hebrew.
She
sends it to him with these words, “A few years ago I wrote a play
founded on an incident of medieval persecution of the Jews in
Germany, which I think it would be highly desirable to publish
now, in order to arouse sympathy and to emphasize the cruelty of
the injustice done to our unhappy people.”37
“The Dance to Death” first was printed in the columns of
The
American Hebrew,
and then was published together with almost all
of Emma’s poems on Jewish subjects in a volume assertively titled
Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death and Other Poems.
The dedica­
tion to the play reads, “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.” The reference is to Eliot’s novel
Daniel Deronda
and undoubtedly also to the English author’s last
NEW POETIC THEMES
37 Philip Cowen, p. 28.