Study Guide

The Jewish Cemetery at Newport

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Jewish Cemetery at Newport Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” is structured by a series of contrasts. The silent “Hebrews” in their graves are contrasted with the motion of the waves. Death, declare the mourners, “giveth Life that nevermore shall cease.” The central contrast is the one between the living and the dead. The synagogue is closed, and the living have gone, “but the dead remain,/ And not neglected; for a hand unseen,/ Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,/ Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.” The dead seem to be especially blessed by that “unseen hand” of nature or God. Longfellow then traces the historical situation of the Jews, however, showing that no “unseen hand” has protected them from persecution.

Longfellow is very direct in assigning “Christian hate” as the cause of the persecution and dislocation of the Jews. He imaginatively captures the persecution in significant detail. He imagines their exile over the sea, “that desert desolate,” and their lives in “narrow streets” and “mirk and mire.” In another set of contrasts, the Jews “fed” upon the “bitter herbs of exile” and “slaked [their] thirst” with tears. In addition, they are “Taught in the school of patience to endure/ The life of anguish and the death of fire.” The contrasts of the poem are resolved by reversing the positions of past and future: “And all the great traditions of the Past/ They saw reflected in the coming time.”...

(The entire section is 467 words.)