Genius, and other essays/Emma Lazarus

WHILE thoroughly feminine, and a mistress of the social art and charm, she was—though without the slighest trace of pedantry—the natural companion of scholars and thinkers. Her emotional nature kept pace with her intellect; as she grew in learning and mental power, she became still more earnest, devoted, impassioned.

These advances marked her writings—especially her poetry, which changed in later years from its early reflection of the Grecian ideals and took on a lyrical and veritably Hebraic fire and imagination. You have rightly said of her that 'she wrote only when inspired'; and there was a contagious inspiration in her Semitic ardor, her satire, wrath and exaltation. That she was able to impart these qualities to sustained creative work is shown by her strangely powerful drama 'The Dance to Death,' unique in American poetry. Viewed merely on the literary side, her abilities were so progressive, under the quickening force of a lofty motive, that her early death is a deplorable loss in a time when so much verse, if not as sounding brass, seems to come from tinkling cymbals. During the last few years, owing to her change of residence, I met Miss Lazarus less frequently, and I scarcely knew what inference to derive from your feeling biographical sketch, as to her religious attitude and convictions. That she was aglow with the Jewish spirit, proud of her race's history and characteristics, and consecrated to its freedom from oppression throughout the world,—all this is finely manifest; yet her intellectual outlook was so broad that I took her to be a modern Theist in religion, and one who would not stipulate for absolute maintenance of the barriers with which the Mosaic law isolated the Jewish race, in certain respects, from the rest of mankind. Taking into account, however, the forces of birth and training, I could understand how our Miriam of today, filled with the passion of her cause, should return to the Pentateuchal faith—to the Mosaic ritual in its hereditary and most uncompromising form. Nor would any lover of the heroic in life or literature, if such had been her course, desire to have it otherwise.

Eighteen years have passed since I wrote the foregoing characterization, under the grave sense of loss inspired by the pity of her death at the very bloom of her creative genius and her new aspiration.

I saw Miss Lazarus most frequently between 1879 and 1881, when our homes were not far apart and she was often an admired guest in my household. One evening she confided to me her feeling of despondency as to her poetic work; a belief that, with all her passion for beauty and justice, she "had accomplished nothing to stir, nothing to awaken, to teach or to suggest, nothing that the world could not equally well do without." These very words I take from a letter received from her in the same week, and they are the substance of what she had spoken. Although no American poet of her years had displayed from childhood a more genuine gift than hers, I knew exactly what she meant. She had followed art for art's sake, along classic lines, and had added no distinctive element to English song. It suddenly occurred to me to ask her why she had been so indifferent to a vantage-ground which she, a Jewess of the purest stock, held above any other writer. Persecutions of her race were then beginning in Europe. She said that, although proud of her blood and lineage, the Hebrew ideals did not appeal to her; but I replied that I envied her the inspiration she might derive from them.

It was not long before outrages to which the Jews were subjected in Eastern and middle Europe began to stir the civilized world, and the heart and spirit of Emma Lazarus thrilled, as I from the first had believed they would, with the passion and indignation that supplied the motive needed for her song. When we were electrified by those glowing lyrics, "The Crowing of the Red Cock," and "The Banner of the Jew," I felt that she at last had come to her own. When she died, a princess was fallen in Israel. Would that her hand were here to smite the harp, in this hour of her race's supreme and last ordeal in the Old World, and equally to sound the note of jubilation and prophecy as you celebrate, even now, the settlement of your historic people upon a continent where no tyranny checks their freedom and progress.

  1. A letter read at the exercises in commemoration of the life and work of Emma Lazarus, 1905.