Poem of the Week / On Christopher Columbus and the New World Jew

Emma Lazarus, best known for her poem 'The New Colossus,' writes about the two-faced year that was 1492.

1492

Emma Lazarus

Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,

Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,

The children of the prophets of the Lord,

Prince, priest, and people, spurned by zealot hate.

Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,

The West refused them, and the East abhorred.

No anchorage the known world could afford,

Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.

Then smiling, thou unveil'dst, O two-faced year,

A virgin world where doors of sunset part,

Saying, "Ho, all who weary, enter here!

There falls each ancient barrier that the art

Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear

Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart!"

***

July 22 was the anniversary of Emma Lazarus' (1849-1887) birth. Lazarus was the fourth of seven children from a prominent and wealthy Portuguese Sephardic family that had been living in New York since before the American Revolution. She published her poems, prose, articles and translations from German and medieval Hebrew in leading American journals such as The Century Magazine and The American Hebrew. Lazarus was an activist for various causes, including Zionism and the plight of indigent Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. After her death, two of her sisters collected her poems and translations and published them in the two volumes of The Poems of Emma Lazarus (1888).

Lazarus is best known for The New Colossus, which she wrote in 1883 as part of the fund-raising effort for the erection of the Statue of Liberty in New York. The poem is engraved on the pedestal of the statue, and over the years it has been memorized and recited by innumerable American schoolchildren.

Like its famous cousin, 1492 is a Petrarchan sonnet in the currently unfashionable vein of almost didactic poetry addressed to a broad public. In the first eight lines – the octave – the poet addresses the expulsion of the Jews from Spain under the edict issued by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella on April 29 of that year. (In Jewish tradition, mourning for this event has been combined with the 9th of Av fast marking the fall of both Temples, along with other post-Biblical disasters like the expulsion of the Jews from York in 1290).

The first half of the octave, which follows the a-b-b-a rhyme scheme in accordance with the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet structure, recounts the expulsion itself. The second four lines, again following an a-b-b-a, rhyme scheme, expand upon (though not entirely accurately) the notion that no other land was prepared to accept the Jews.

Typically in a Petrarchan sonnet, after the octave comes a volta – a turnaround. And indeed, Lazarus, who had considerable mastery of the classical forms, introduces the brighter side of the year 1492 with the word Then.

In the six lines of the sestet (e-f-e-f-e-f), then refers to August 3, 1492, when Christopher Columbus – who some say was a secret Jew, though some but not all Italians claim him as their own – set sail from Spain in search of a route to India and found the Americas instead.

Remarkably, all this history is recounted without explicit mention of Jews, Catholics or Columbus. And indeed, the fate of the Jews is conflated with the fate of all oppressed peoples who sought refuge in the New World.

Equally remarkably, Lazarus (who never married) develops in this poem a detailed narrative about family, gender and sex. The year is a weeping "mother"; Spain is a swordsman; the Jews are children, apparently male, descendants of the prophets of the Lord, / Prince, priest, and people. Then, erotically, a virgin world is unveiled, and its doors of sunset part to admit all who are weary.

For more about Emma Lazarus and her American and Jewish identity, see this essay by Prof. Shira Wolosky of the Hebrew University's department of English and American literature.

Musings

Lazarus seems to suggest that Columbus' discovery of America was a seminal event in Jewish history, but she employs the history of the persecution of the Jews as a part of a larger whole -- a synecdoche -- for the broader American mission. Would or should a Jewish reading of this poem change over time? What kinds of historical circumstances are conducive to the writing of this kind of public poetry and does it retain validity over time?

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