Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) is a beloved American poet and educator whose notable works include Paul Revere’s Ride, The Courtship of Miles Standish, The Village Blacksmith, and Evangeline. He wrote many lyric poems known for their musicality, often presented stories of mythology and legend, and was the first American to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy.
In the summer of 1852, Longfellow brought his family to Newport, Rhode Island, for a vacation and while walking the local streets he became captivated by the old Jewish cemetery, which he visited on July 9, 1852. As he wrote in his diary:
Here we are, in the clover-fields on the cliff, at Hazard’s house; near the beach, with the glorious sea unrolling its changing billows before us. Here, in truth, the sea speaks Italian; at Nahant it speaks Norse. Went this morning into the Jewish burying-ground, with a polite old gentleman who keeps the key. It is a shady nook, at the corner of two dusty, frequented streets, with an iron fence and a granite gateway…
The Jewish Cemetery at Newport, his poem about the site, published two years later, was a sensitive portrayal of the place and its people, as he included tender references to “Hebrews in their graves,” knowledgeable mentions of Jewish religious practices, and sympathetic references to Jewish persecution. Exhibited with this column is a quotation from the poem, originally signed “With Mr. Longfellow’s compliments.”
Founded in 1677, the Jewish Cemetery is the second oldest Jewish graveyard in the United States. Nonetheless, at the time of Longfellow’s visit to Newport with his family, it was logical for him to consider it strange to find a Jewish cemetery there. Newport had been financially devastated during the Revolution, when the British occupied the town and seized ships and other resources. After the successful resolution of the war, most prosperous merchants left for cities such as New York and Savannah, which by then had displaced Newport as commercial centers.
The Newport community was left behind by the rapid forces of industrialization, and successful Jewish merchants had moved on as well, so that by the time of Longfellow’s visit, there were very few Jews there. However, by the time he wrote The Jewish Cemetery the old seaport town had begun to attract members of Boston’s intellectual elite.
Longfellow began his poem by expressing his surprise at finding a synagogue – which he describes as being “a shady nook, at the corner of two dusty, frequented streets” – in an old New England port town. However, this was actually not surprising, since neither Portsmouth (where he grew up), nor Cambridge (where he lived), nor Boston, nor any other New England town or port, had a colonial-era Jewish community. “How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves, Close by the street of this fair seaport town…” Today the synagogue remains the oldest surviving synagogue building in the United States.
As a former language professor at Harvard, Longfellow could read and write Hebrew, and his musings on what might have led the first Jews to Newport in the 17th century indicate that he knew a bit of their history. Isaacs, Judah, Moses, Alvares, Rivera…these first Jews of Newport had fled religious persecution and arrived at New Amsterdam in the New World in 1658. The settlement of Newport, then only nineteen years old, welcomed them and later embraced a group of Spanish Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition. Obviously moved by, and sympathetic toward, the plight of the Jews, Longfellow was eerily prophetic in his poem; his well-educated, enlightened mind could surely not have imagined the persecutions and suffering that were still to come for the Jewish people
In the tradition of English contemplative poetry of the 18th century, he both paints a physical portrait of the cemetery and explores his own ruminations. But it is the final – and controversial – line that has caused the poem, and the cemetery, to be remembered:
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.
The poet Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), who frequented Newport at her family’s summer home, was inspired at age 18 to write In the Jewish Synagogue of Newport (1867), one of her earliest creative expressions of Jewish consciousness. Famously arguing that while the Jews may be down they will nonetheless exist forever, she concentrated on the synagogue and its continuing living power and concluded that “the sacred shrine is holy yet.”
Thus, while Longfellow wrote from the perspective of cynicism and old age and as a non-Jewish outside observer, Lazarus considered the same subject from the perspective of youth and as an insider raised within the Jewish community. She later developed a friendship with Longfellow, frequently corresponded with him and, upon his death, eulogized him in the April 4, 1882 edition of The American Hebrew.
And of course, when all is said and done, Lazarus was correct and Longfellow was dead wrong. As we say in the vernacular: Am Yisrael Chai!
Saul Jay Singer