Poem of the Week

Byron’s Gazelle Leaps in a proto-Zionist Landscape

The Romantic poet and a cantor’s son collaborated on a bestseller 200 years ago.

Doron Nissim

The Wild Gazelle

Lord Byron

1.
The wild gazelle on Judah's hills,
Exulting yet may bound,
And drink from all the living rills
That gush on holy ground –
Its airy step and glorious eye
May glance in tameless transport by –

2.
A step as fleet, an eye more bright,
Hath Judah witness'd there;
And o'er her scenes of lost delight
Inhabitants more fair,
The cedars wave on Lebanon,
But Judah's statelier maids are gone!

3.
More blest each palm that shades those plains
Than Israel's scatter'd race;
For, taking root, it there remains
In solitary grace.
It cannot quit the place of birth,
It will not live in other earth.

George Gordon, Lord Byron, by Thomas Phillips (1770-1845).
Wikipedia

4.
But we must wander witheringly,
In other lands to die –
And where our fathers' ashes be,
Our own may never lie.
Our temple hath not left a stone.
And Mockery sits on Salem's throne.

Isaac Nathan, ca. a1820. Artist unknown
Wikipedia

From “Hebrew Melodies,” 1815

The gazelles living free in Judah in stanza 1 quickly leap into a proto-Zionist lament. In stanza 2, inhabitants even “more fair” are absent. In stanza 3, we are told who exactly is absent: “Israel’s scattered race” – now contrasted with the rooted palm tree, which “cannot quit the place of birth.”

In stanza 4, it becomes clear that the narrative voice in this vision of exile is “we” – “Israel’s scattered race.”

Why did George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), write about the Jewish diaspora?

Isaac Nathan (1790-1864) music master to Princess Charlotte (1796-1817; not the new one), was the son of a cantor who claimed to have been a Polish king’s illegitimate son. In a letter, he cold-pitched a collaboration to the poet, whom he had never met: Byron would provide poems and he, Nathan, would provide a “selection from the favorite airs which are still sung in the religious Ceremonies of the Jews. Some of these have ... been preserved by memory and tradition alone... But the latitude given to the taste and genius of their performers has been the means of engrafting on the original Melodies a certain wildness and pathos, which have at length become the chief characteristic of the Sacred Songs of the Jews.”

An impious Christian but a fan of “wildness and pathos,” as well as a supporter of disenfranchised nations (he died preparing to defend the Greeks against the Turks), Byron befriended Nathan and contributed 29 poems, not all of them connected to “Hebrews.” As he wrote to his future wife: “It is odd enough that this should fall to my lot – who have been abused as an 'infidel' ... they will call me a Jew next." “Hebrew Melodies” was a bestseller in its day.

In anthologies and recitations, the poems outlived the melodies -- few recordings are extant – but Nathan outlived Byron by four decades. He immigrated to Australia in 1841, introduced works by Mozart and Beethoven there, wrote the first Australian opera and pioneered Australian musicology, transcribing indigenous music. He died in 1864 in the first antipodean tramcar accident.

Meanwhile, back in Judah the mountain gazelle also known controversially as the Palestine Gazelle flourished. A small herd now exults in the Gazelle Valley Nature Park, opened this spring in the shadow of the infamous Holyland development thanks to heroic efforts by local activists to preserve the wild space.

*Bonus: Listen to the words and music together: “The Wild Gazelle