“The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” is a lyric meditation in fifteen rhymed quatrains. The title indicates the location where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow focuses his reverie on time, history, and death. As in the tradition of English meditative poetry of the eighteenth century, the poem at once paints a visual portrait of the cemetery yet also uses the place as a way to explore the poet’s own reflections.
The poem is set in Newport, Rhode Island, at the oldest Jewish burial ground in America, one long since abandoned. It is written from the perspective of a solitary observer basically identical with the poet himself. In the first two stanzas, the poet regards the cemetery, muses over its desertion, and thinks not only of the desolate present but also of its hallowed past.
In the fourth stanza, reading the names chiseled on the gravestones, the poet is caught by the incongruity between the biblical first names of the deceased and their Spanish and Portuguese surnames. This leads him to imagine the people behind the names, initiating the central movement in the poem, from the fourth to the eleventh stanzas. In this part of the poem, the poet conjures up a vivid spectacle as he contemplates the story of those now dead. He envisions the people worshiping in the synagogue, chanting Psalms, and mourning for their dead. He asked what prompted the Jews to emigrate, what “burst of Christian hate” led them to undertake the perilous voyage to...
(The entire section is 499 words.)