March 7, 2012

Lazarus and Nightingale: No monument of stone

On March 7, 1867, Emma Lazarus wrote her poem dedicated Florence Nightingale, the English woman who pioneered modern nursing. Certainly, in the years during and following the American Civil War, the craft of nursing was in much esteem. Lazarus, who was still two decades away from writing her most famous poem "The New Colossus," was only 17 when she wrote "Florence Nightingale":

       Upon the whitewashed walls
       A woman's shadow falls,
A woman walketh o'er the darksome floors.
       A soft, angelic smile
       Lighteth her face the while,
In passing through the dismal corridors.

       And now and then there slips
       A word from out her lips,
More sweet and grateful to those listening ears
       Than the most plaintive tale
       Of the sad nightingale,
Whose name and tenderness this woman bears.

       Her presence in the room
       Of agony and gloom,
No fretful murmurs, no coarse words profane;
       For while she standeth there,
       All words are hushed save prayer;
She seems God's angel weeping o'er man's pain.

       And some of them arise,
       With eager, tearful eyes,
From off their couch to see her passing by.
       Some, e'en too weak for this,
       Can only stoop and kiss
Her shadow, and fall back content to die.

       No monument of stone
       Needs this heroic one,—
Her name is graven on each noble heart;
       And in all after years
       Her praise will be the tears
Which at that name from quivering lids will start.

       And those who live not now,
       To see the sainted brow,
And the angelic smile before it flits for aye,
       They in the future age
       Will kiss the storied page
Whereon the shadow of her life will lie.

Lazarus's family was wealthy at the time (her father had retired two years earlier) but, like many intellectuals in the post-Civil War era, she felt a responsibility to engender values in society at large. Her poem on Nightingale expresses a desire that people should be willing to help others, even if the effort is thankless. About this time, Lazarus was also publishing translations of German, Spanish, and French poets, most of whom were Jewish. About a year later, she would send her translations to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who gave her some mild encouragement. She wrote original works as well but did not collect them in book form until 1871 when Admetus and Other Poems (including "Florence Nightingale") was published.

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