Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In this poem, there are no specific characters, but Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spends the majority of the poem discussing a particular group of people: the "Hebrews" who, as he describes, have spent many years wandering in exile, hated by Christians and forced into ghettos, only to end up here in Newport, where the "dead" in the cemetery have outlasted the living community.
This is an interesting focus for Longfellow. He indicates that it is no longer common to find Jewish people in Newport—on the contrary, there are now no voices reciting the Psalms as they are written in the Torah, and the "portals" of the Jewish synagogues which were once here have been closed. However, from Longfellow's perspective, the Jewish dead who remain here with their "foreign" names inscribed on the gravestones remain the preserve of some "unseen hand" who keeps their graves green and the cemetery tidy even though there are no living Jews left to look after the dead.
Longfellow alludes to a number of key figures in Jewish history, including Ishmael and Hagar, as he questions how these Jewish dead arrived in Newport and how much Christian hate they must have endured. Ishmael is a figure in the Torah (and in the Christian Old Testament) who was the son of Abraham and Hagar, a servant. As he was not the child of Abraham and his legal wife, Sarah, he has generally been viewed (including within Judaism) as the father of a wicked line. Longfellow's suggestion in making this allusion seems to be that Jews have been viewed this way by the Christians they have lived among, even though they themselves believe they are the chosen people and the favorites of God.
Another important figure mentioned is Mordecai, whose story forms the basis of the book of Esther and whose triumphs are celebrated by Jewish people during the Purim festival. For the Jews, Mordecai is a great hero, but Longfellow describes him as "accursed," once again outlining the fact that Jews have been much rejected across the world. He makes particular reference to their treatment in Germany—where the Jewish population was at this time very large—by using the term "Judenstrass," or Jewish streets, to refer to the ghettos in which Jews have lived.