November 19, 2011

Death of Lazarus: can these dead bones live?

Emma Lazarus was only 38 years old when she died in New York City on November 19, 1887. The cause of death is presumed to be Hodgkin's lymphoma. Though she died at a young age, her career began early: she published her first book at the age of 17.

Lazarus's Jewish family had been in the United States for generations, but she felt a kinship with incoming immigrants, especially those fleeing from Russia. It was that sentiment that inspired her most famous poem, "The New Colossus," which helped raise funds for the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. It was not the poem read at the statue's dedication though, decades after her death, its lines were inscribed on the pedestal in 1903.

Shortly after her death, Lazarus's sister Josephine helped compile an anthology of her poems. In the biographical introduction, Josephine notes her sister's desire for privacy and hesitated "to lift the veil and throw the light upon a life so hidden and a personality so withdrawn as that of Emma Lazarus." But, Lazarus was "a born singer," she writes, and "poetry was her natural language, and to write was less effort than to speak." Josephine notes, however, that this "singing" was not "like a bird," singing for "the joy of being alive." Instead, Lazarus felt suffering in the world and in her own life. According to Josephine, her sister was defined by her religion, her culture, and her sex, and those details directed her poems. Referring to work left unfinished, Josephine concludes her biographical sketch with questions: "And now, at the end, we ask, Has the grave really closed over all these gifts? Has that eager, passionate striving ceased, that hunger and thirst which we call life, and 'is the rest silence?'" Emma Lazarus's poem "The New Ezekiel":

What! can these dead bones live, whose sap is dried
   By twenty scorching centuries of wrong?
Is this the House of Israel whose pride
   Is as a tale that's told, an ancient song?
Are these ignoble relics all that live
   Of psalmist, priest, and prophet? Can the breath
Of very heaven bid these bones revive,
   Open the graves, and clothe the ribs of death?
Yea, Prophesy, the Lord hath said again:
   Say to the wind, Come forth and breathe afresh,
Even that they may live, upon these slain,
   And bone to bone shall leap, and flesh to flesh.
The spirit is not dead, proclaim the word.
   Where lay dead bones a host of armed men stand!
I ope your graves, my people, saith the Lord,
   And I shall place you living in your land.

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