Emma Lazarus: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Many of us can probably think of celebrities who've died young, but probably none were quite like Emma Lazarus. Read on to learn more about this important American poet and take a look at some of her work that you're sure to recognize!

A Moving Soul: A Brief Biography of Emma Lazarus

'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe freeā€¦' maybe you've read these words in English class or on a visit to the Statue of Liberty. Whatever the case, this is one of the most famous phrases in American literature, written by one of the country's most widely unknown literary greats. Emma Lazarus was her name, and she was born July 22, 1849 to a wealthy and elite Jewish family of New York City.

Emma's father Moses was a successful sugar refiner who made sure his children were educated. Emma was privately tutored at home, where she became well-versed in Greek and Latin Classics as well as in French, German, and Italian literature. At the encouragement of her father, Emma began writing at an early age, even producing translations of works by Victor Hugo, Goethe, and German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, with whom she shared many viewpoints (i.e. reverence for Jewish culture rather than theology) and whose work greatly influenced her own.

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), Jewish-American poet and civil rights advocate
Portrait of Emma Lazarus

Moses collected Emma's earliest works and published them privately in 1866 under the title Poems and Translations Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Sixteen. This was also the year that Lazarus began her correspondence with Ralph Waldo Emerson - a respected American poet and literary essayist and lecturer of the 19th century. Emerson became Emma's mentor and proved to be an immense source of guidance and motivation for her.

Lazarus, however, also found herself motivated by other people and especially their plights. As descendants of Sephardic Jews - a Jewish ethnic group of Spain and Portugal - who had come to America in the 17th century, Emma's family was part of the Jewish elite and thus held in much higher esteem than many of the other Jewish immigrants who found themselves victims of increasingly hostile environments throughout Europe and even to some degree in the U.S. Even Emma's high-society status couldn't prevent references to her as strictly a Jewish writer, and growing American prejudice against Jewish communities seemed to light Lazarus' fire.

Emma published continually throughout the 1870's and received great critical acclaim in some of the influential literary and social circles of the day. Despite the increasing focus of her work on Jewish subjects and issues, Lazarus felt she could be doing more to further the cause. In 1883, she began her first tour of Europe, during which she met with Jewish refugees and worked to promote a Jewish home in Palestine. That year Emma founded the Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews, making her one of the earliest forebears of Zionism, a political and cultural movement of the 20th century intent on providing the Hebrew people with their own national home.

After a quick return home, Emma launched a second tour of Europe in 1885. While traveling, though, she became deathly ill and returned to New York in September of 1887. Barely two months later, Emma Lazarus died of what is thought to be Hodgkin's lymphoma at only 38 on November 19, 1887. Though her life was short, she was a prolific writer and carries the distinction of being America's first major Jewish poet. Her dedication to civil rights and the fair treatment of her people produced many moving works, at least one of which has even been engraved in bronze.

Poems by Emma Lazarus

'In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport'

Many commentators on Emma's work tend to note that it doesn't seem to reflect a deep interest in Jewish culture and advocacy until around the 1880's. While we know our own interests change overtime, along with those of many authors, this was just not the case with Emma. In fact, she'd long possessed a strong pride for her heritage, and her work demonstrated as much at least as early as 1867 when she published 'In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport.'

This poem by Lazarus is actually a rebuttal to one written by the famous Henry Wadsworth Longfellow entitled 'The Jewish Cemetery at Newport.' In his poem, Longfellow assesses the state of Jewish culture of their day as a 'Legend of the Dead;' whereas, Emma argues that 'nathless the sacred shrine is holy yet.' On the surface, much of her poetic response appears to agree with Longfellow's assessment as it seems to mourn an illustrious past. However, in the end we see that Lazarus has actually just demonstrated how alive and rich the Jewish traditions still are.

The Dance to Death

While this work by Lazarus may not be the type of poetic work we're perhaps most familiar with, this piece of dramatic poetry, or any dramatic work written in lines of verse (i.e. Shakespeare's), is a poem nonetheless. It was first published as part of 'Songs of a Semite' in 1882, but there's evidence to suggest that The Dance to Death was written many years prior and like 'In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport' displays Emma's early interest in Jewish heritage and civil rights.

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