The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Longfellow adapts his stanzaic form from poems in the English tradition, such as Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” These poems, like “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport,” are concerned with the presence of death in the midst of a human landscape. The first and third lines of each four-line stanza rhyme, as do the second and fourth. This variety of stanza gives the impression of ceremony and dignity. The rhyming words are usually of one or two syllables and often contain very sharply defined vowels and consonants. This effect contributes to the sense of enclosure and reflective weight to be found in the poem. Longfellow departs from the tradition by his own highly individual stress and meter, which do not always follow the largely iambic patterns expected in English prosody since the Renaissance, and the poem’s forms convey a sense of familiarity and ease. This ease assists in transmitting the very specific subject matter of the poem to an achieved poetic level.

The poem is filled with many strong visual images. These images do not point to the physical reality of the cemetery before the poet’s eyes as much as to the scenes in the life that the poet imagines for the dead who are buried there. Much of the imagery is, either implicitly or explicitly, biblical. Longfellow, who was not Jewish himself, drew upon the knowledge of the Old Testament he possessed by virtue of his Christian background to supply the detail for his...

(The entire section is 499 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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