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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452

The poet begins by highlighting the strangeness of finding Jewish graves in a seaport town. He maintains his surprise that the Jews are silent in their graves next to an ever turbulent sea.

Next, he highlights the dust-covered trees, which provide a canopy of shade over the graves. The Jews's...

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The poet begins by highlighting the strangeness of finding Jewish graves in a seaport town. He maintains his surprise that the Jews are silent in their graves next to an ever turbulent sea.

Next, he highlights the dust-covered trees, which provide a canopy of shade over the graves. The Jews's long, mysterious "Exodus of death" ends here. As for the Jews, the poet is referring to those who fled the Catholic Portuguese Inquisition in the 17th century. Then, the Portuguese Inquisition targeted converted Jews who had supposedly betrayed the tenets of their adopted Christian faith.

The Jews fled to the Caribbean. In 1658, the first group of Jews arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, the setting of this poem. These Jewish pioneers were of Spanish and Portuguese descent. Upon hearing of religious toleration in the North American colonies, they made their way to New England shores.

Eventually, this first group of Jews built a Jewish cemetery in Newport in 1677. Two prominent Jews in the congregation, Moses Pacheco and Mordechai Campanal, purchased a lot for the cemetery. Today, the Touro Synagogue is located next to the cemetery; the synagogue is the oldest in America and a national historic site.

In the poem, the poet likens the tombstones in the cemetery to the tablets of Moses (the same ones which the 10 Commandments were inscribed upon). He also maintains that the names on the tombstones are strange-sounding: he sees "Alvares" and "Rivera" alongside "Abraham and Jacob of old times."

Next, the poet moves to discuss the finality of death, which leaves the synagogue empty. On Sabbaths, there is no sign of a rabbi preaching in the grand tradition of the Prophets, and no singing is heard in the congregation. However, the dead and their graves are sustained by an unseen hand (God).

The poet then moves to discuss how the Jewish graves came to be. As explained above, the first group of Jews who came to Newport was attracted by the religious toleration shown in the New England colonies.

The poet voices his admiration for how the Jews endured "merciless and blind" persecution with patience. They held fast, according to the tradition of the prophets and patriarchs. He uses the language of the Old Testament to describe their ordeal under the Portuguese Inquisition. Phrases like "unleavened bread," "bitter herbs of exile," and "marah of their tears" bring to mind the Hebrew exodus out of Egypt.

The poet maintains that the tombstones tell the story of a Hebrew book, which always "reverts" to the past. Thus, the entire cemetery holds the "Legend of the Dead."

The poem ends on a melancholy note, however. In the last lines, the poet laments that the "dead nations" will never rise again.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

“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.” Longfellow then uses an appropriate and powerful metaphor reversing past and present, the living and the dead.

And thus forever with reverted lookThe mystic volume of the world they read,Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book,Till life became a Legend of the Dead.

All the negative elements of the poem are contrasted with or overcome by their opposites. Death leads to life, and exile to knowledge.

The last stanza of the poem, however, reverses the patterns that have been established: “But ah! What once has been shall be no more!” The people of Israel may find life in death and endurance in exile, but the nation of Israel cannot. Its creation is described in a metaphor of birth. “The groaning earth in travail and in pain/ Brings forth its races, but does not restore,/ And the dead nations never rise again.” A nation, in Longfellow’s view, is bound by natural laws, while a people are free of such restraints. (It is ironic that the nation of Israel was indeed to “rise again” in 1949.)

Longfellow overcame the prejudices of his time in imaginatively and sympathetically portraying the Jews, but in the last stanza, he becomes a man bound by his time and place by being unable to overcome ideas of the life cycle of a nation. Nevertheless, “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” is a beautifully constructed and powerful poem.

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