Dana Gioia reads H.W. Longfellow’s “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport”
Poetry of American Identity: A Collection of Field Recordings by Award-winning Contemporary Poets
The Jewish Cemetery at Newport
How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves, Close by the street of this fair seaport town, Silent beside the never-silent waves, At rest in all this moving up and down! The trees are white with dust, that o'er their sleep Wave their broad curtains in the south-wind's breath, While underneath these leafy tents they keep The long, mysterious Exodus of Death. And these sepulchral stones, so old and brown, That pave with level flags their burial-place, Seem like the tablets of the Law, thrown down And broken by Moses at the mountain's base. The very names recorded here are strange, Of foreign accent, and of different climes; Alvares and Rivera interchange With Abraham and Jacob of old times. “Blessed be God! for he created Death!” The mourners said, “and Death is rest and peace;” Then added, in the certainty of faith, “And giveth Life that nevermore shall cease.” Closed are the portals of their Synagogue, No Psalms of David now the silence break, No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue In the grand dialect the Prophets spake. Gone are the living, but the dead remain, And not neglected; for a hand unseen, Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain, Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green. How came they here? What burst of Christian hate, What persecution, merciless and blind, Drove o'er the sea—that desert desolate— These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind? They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure, Ghetto and Judenstrass, in mirk and mire; Taught in the school of patience to endure The life of anguish and the death of fire. All their lives long, with the unleavened bread And bitter herbs of exile and its fears, The wasting famine of the heart they fed, And slaked its thirst with marah of their tears. Anathema maranatha! was the cry That rang from town to town, from street to street; At every gate the accursed Mordecai Was mocked and jeered, and spurned by Christian feet. Pride and humiliation hand in hand Walked with them through the world where’er they went; Trampled and beaten were they as the sand, And yet unshaken as the continent. For in the background figures vague and vast Of patriarchs and of prophets rose sublime, And all the great traditions of the Past They saw reflected in the coming time. And thus forever with reverted look The mystic volume of the world they read, Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book, Till life became a Legend of the Dead. But ah! what once has been shall be no more! The groaning earth in travail and in pain Brings forth its races, but does not restore, And the dead nations never rise again.—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Dana Gioia on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport”
Transcription of Commentary
This is Dana Gioia. The poem I would like to read is “The Jewish Cemetery at New Port” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This is not a very well-known poem these days, but I consider it one of the great elegies in American literature and also one of the few great 19th century poems that’s really about the burden of immigration.
This is, I think, an extraordinary poem. When Longfellow visited New Port, Rhode Island in 1852, the seaport town was already on its way to becoming a sort of fancy summer resort. But during this visit, he discovered an old Jewish cemetery that dated back to pre-revolutionary days for the city’s small, and already long vanished, Sephardic Jewish community. The cemetery was associated with the nearby Touro Synagogue, the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue in the United States—and, in fact, all of North America. Longfellow uses this experience of seeing the cemetery and seeing the gravestones for a long, historic elegy, a meditation on the history of the Jews.
This is an unusual poem for Longfellow. The language is more dense than his typical poem. It is also studded with allusions to Jewish history and religion. The elegiac tone, though, is actually quite characteristic for Longfellow. It is the same tone we hear in many poems such as the gorgeous opening lines of “Evangeline”: “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, / Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight.” It’s this kind of lyric sad music that he had a particular genius for. But in the Jewish cemetery at New Port, Longfellow uses this elegiac music to articulate a tragic vision of Jewish history: a history of persecution, expulsion, and Diaspora. Longfellow’s humane and sympathetic meditation on this Jewish cemetery—which is has been oddly preserved in a Protestant New England seaport, which no longer has a Jewish community—reflects a remarkably open and inclusive vision of America for the 19th century, full of compassion for the oppressed and marginalized. And this is at least one reason to admire this fine poem. You know, Longfellow uses these Sephardic family names on the tombstones—Avares, Rivera, names that reflect the Portuguese and Spanish origins of these Sephardic immigrants as a tiny gesture to suggest centuries of Jewish Diaspora as well as a history of persecution, expulsion, and immigration. And the sheer compassion of Longfellow’s vision suffuses the poem with an emotion, an emotional music that is quite powerful. And that is what makes this poem matter most to me personally: the strange beauty and evocative power of its language and its imagery that draw a special resonance from Jewish cultural history. Let me give you one example toward the end of the poem: Longfellow imagines the dead in their graves literally trapped in history, and he uses the fact that Hebrew, unlike English, is written from right to left and that Hebrew books advance from back to front as a metaphor for Jewish historical consciousness that never forgets its ancient Biblical origins:
And thus forever with reverted look The mystic volume of the world they read, Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book, Till life became a Legend of the Dead.
There is of course an irony in Longfellow’s powerful lines. It must have seemed impossible even to a progressive idealist such as Longfellow that the Jewish people would ever again have a homeland. That the very backward gaze on ancient history that he celebrates that categorizes race and its long Diaspora also proved to be the political passion that led to the recreation of Israel—a future that Longfellow could not foretell as one of the many dead nations that in modern history rose again.
This poem is in the public domain.
Dana Gioia (1950- ) was born in Los Angeles and educated at Stanford and Harvard Universities. He is the author of four poetry collections and three books of criticism, as well as editor of numerous literary anthologies and translations. The former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia is currently the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California. Photo Credit: Lynda Koolish.
Learn more about Dana Gioia at The Poetry Foundation
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was born in Maine and educated at Bowdoin College. One of the 19th century’s most successful and beloved poets, Longfellow’s large body of work also includes novels and translations. He is the only American writer ever honored in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Learn more about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at The Poetry Foundation