Some poets, like some musicians, suffer from the “one hit wonder” syndrome, and Emma Lazarus is surely one of them. Lazarus is forever tied to a sonnet “The New Colossus,” the one that includes the line “Give me your tired, your poor…” which has not only been made part of The Statue of Liberty, but has become an unofficial idealized civic document of America’s relationship to immigrants and refugees.
Which might make you think that Lazarus’ family was part of that great American immigration wave of the 19th and early 20th century. Not so. Her family were 17th century immigrants to New York State, via a bank shot from Portugal to Brazil, as Jewish heritage peoples fleeing the aftermath of the Inquisition.
That someone had to have written this well-known poem is self-evident, but it hasn’t really made Lazarus’s work beyond “The New Colossus” subject to much study or readership.* Today’s piece “Long Island Sound,” another sonnet by Lazarus, has been passed around on blogs and poetry sites a bit though, so let’s see what we have. Here’s a link to the full text of “Long Island Sound” if you’d like to read along.
It’s a nature poem, a somewhat ecstatic one without resort to explicit words labeling emotion. I note one or two darker notes in the catalog of images of an August day that add shade to this summer ease: a “grave sky” appears here, and unless that’s a foreshortened “engraved” for meter’s sake, a summer storm may be forthcoming. The imagery raises to a superior level at times for me. The far-off sail “white as a crescent moon” is good, the tide’s sound on sand rendered as a “lisp” and the children linked with crickets is even better, and the “clouds fantastical as sleep” sticks with me even after several readings. Did Lazarus intend the pun on the word “sound?” I hope so.
I also like the ending. As I’ve learned, Lazarus’ family was well-off, but the persona in the poem is not specifically of any class or wealth. I can recall a summer working at a small factory in Mamaroneck, and a weekend afternoon watching a friend of a friend’s father sail his one-man boat out in the lower part of the Long Island Sound while we on the shore had the free talk and association of those without money for much of anything else. This poem’s Winslow Homer-ish landscape requires only the poet’s ownership of attention to claim it.
Since this is a painting by Winslow Homer, you won’t be able to hear the water lisping on the sand or crickets chirping amid the sound of distant children.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Emma Lazarus’ “Long Island Sound” is below. A short and jaunty one today.
*No worse than any other 19th century American woman poet who isn’t Emily Dickinson I guess. Lazarus is not the poetic innovator that Dickinson was, but she shares a few traits with Dickinson: her family was well-off, allowing her some privileged resources, she never married, she was something of a follower and admirer of Emerson (for at least awhile), and like Dickinson she knew Thomas Wentworth Higginson.