American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Lazarus

Briefly Noted

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In the sports section of the New York Times this past Tuesday, in a college basketball story:

St. John’s earned the 73-51 victory in the Emma Lazarus round of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. You know: the poem, “The New Colossus,” engraved on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

I gather from the story that the team St. John’s beat, Connecticut, was tired and poor. And so deserved to lose? Not exactly pro-immigrant (or pro-“immigrant”) in spirit. But it’s nice to see Emma Lazarus name-checked on the sports page!

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 12, 2010 at 9:04 pm

More Lint

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Matted in my head, as in the filter of a drying machine.

Emma Lazarus, who wrote the most famous of all American sonnets, “The New Colossus,” made translations from Petrarch. So too did Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who domesticated the Italian form by inscribing it in an American landscape. In “Sunshine and Petrarch,” written for Atlantic Monthly in 1867, he describes a little cove set above a steep bank of buttercups and grass, then comments:

If Petrarch still knows and feels the consummate beauty of these earthly things, it may seem to him some repayment for the sorrows of a lifetime that one reader, after all this lapse of years, should choose his sonnets to match this grass, these blossoms, and the soft lapse of these blue waves. Yet any longer or more continuous poem would be out of place to-day. I fancy that this narrow cove prescribes the proper limits of a sonnet; and when I count the lines of ripple within yonder projecting wall, there proves to be room for just fourteen. Nature meets our whims with such little fitnesses. The words which build these delicate structures are as soft and fine and close-textured as the sands upon this tiny beach, and their monotone, if such it be, is the monotone of the neighboring ocean.

A beautiful tranquility. But sonnets are not tranquil by nature, if only because they are often occasioned by powerful emotions. Here are the last ten lines of one of the Lazarus translations; they enact as it were an argument within the sonnet against the placidity sonnets are said to exemplify:

This life is like a field of flowering thyme,
Amidst the herbs and grass the serpent lives;
If aught unto the sight brief pleasure gives,
‘Tis but to snare the soul with treacherous lime.
So, wouldst thou keep thy spirit free from cloud,
A tranquil habit to thy latest day,
Follow the few, and not the vulgar crowd.
Yet mayest thou urge, “Brother, the very way
Thou showest us, wherefrom thy footsteps proud
(And never more than now) so oft did stray.”

Petrarch’s straying footsteps work very well as a figure for free verse, and free-verse sonnets are the ones I know best from my own era  —  Ted Berrigan’s being the best known (though I have a special fondness for those of John Clarke). The prototype is Walt Whitman’s “Death-Sonnet for Custer,” published in the New York Daily Tribune on July 10th, 1876. Here is a reproduction of the manuscript, held by the New York Public Library:

Click for a link to the NYPL website and a larger image

Click for a link to the NYPL website and a larger image

The Walt Whitman archive reproduces the newspaper printing and gives a transcript here.

For a sonnet that takes issue with its own form, you cannot do better than Poe’s “Enigma” (1848): Read the rest of this entry »

For a Commonplace Book 1

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All bent one way like flickering flame,
Each blade caught sunlight as it came,
Then rising, saddened into shade;
A changeful, wavy, harmless sea,
Whose billows none could bitterly
Reproach with wrecks that they had made.

Not all the sorrow man hath known,
Not all the evil he hath done,
Have ever cast thereon a stain.
It groweth green and fresh and light
As in the olden garden bright,
Beneath the feet of Eve and Cain.

— from “A Tuft of Grass” by Emma Lazarus (written when she was 17 and published in her first book, Admetus)

Written by Ben Friedlander

February 5, 2009 at 1:58 am

Posted in Commonplace Book

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