Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” is about death and about the past. These are themes to which Longfellow was unusually sensitive among poets of his age. Although Longfellow’s reputation has never recovered from the drastic fall it took during the era of modernism, it should be recognized that the concern about history and memory this poem shows is rare during a period in which literature was often more concerned with an examination of the American present. Longfellow looks into the neglected odds and ends of history and finds meanings there that others overlook.

The poem contains well-researched, accurate information. It is true, for example, that the first Jews in America were Sephardim from Southern Europe. Longfellow, though, does not passively rely on this knowledge, but incorporates it into his own imaginative meditation. The story that the poet sees and finds in the cemetery in the end seems far more noteworthy than more contemporary ones that are more immediately attractive. The sensitivity of the poet is all the more impressive in that his positive regard for the Jews is notable at a time when anti-Semitism was unfortunately still not totally unrespectable.

The poem is not sentimental about the Jews of Newport. It does not try to pretend that their lives were ideal, nor does the poet become overly optimistic about what he can learn from them. There is no sense of breakthrough to a greater or inner truth at the end of the poem....

(The entire section is 448 words.)