August 24, 2011

Lazarus: floods of molten gold

Born in New York, Emma Lazarus and her family spent their summers fashionably, often in Newport, Rhode Island. One summer, however, the family traveled north to visit Niagara Falls. There, on August 24, 1865, the 16-year old wrote her blank-verse sonnet "Niagara":

Thou art a giant altar, where the Earth
Must needs send up her thanks to Him above
Who did create her. Nature cometh here
To lay its offerings upon thy shrine.
The morning and the evening shower down
Bright jewels, — changeful opals, em'ralds fair.
The burning noon sends floods of molten gold,
The calm night crowns thee with its host of stars,
The moon enfolds thee with her silver veil,
And o'er thee e'er is arched the rainbow's span, —
The gorgeous marriage-ring of Earth and Heaven.
While ever from the holy altar grand
Ascends the incense of the mist and spray,
The mounts to God with thy wild roar of praise.

Lazarus became fascinated with the sonnet form. Her first book, Poems and Translations in 1866, included several of them. The book was dedicated "To My Father." Years later, her most famous poem, "The New Colossus," would also follow the sonnet form.

*I first encountered this poem in Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems (2005), a publication of the American Poets Project edited by John Hollander.

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