Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 318
American poet Longfellow wrote “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” when he visited Newport with his family in 1857. Originally from Maine and educated at Bowdoin College, Longfellow could read and write Hebrew. In this poem, the poet reflects on Judaism and religious freedom—two of the poem’s major themes.
As he walks through the cemetery, Longfellow discusses Judaism more generally. He alludes to Hagar and Ishmael, a mother and son from the Old Testament cast off into the wilderness after fighting with Sarah, the wife of Abraham (who was Ishmael’s father). Longfellow also adduces Mordecai, a relation of Esther who helped to foil an assassination plot against King Ahasuerus. Moses and his famous tablets are also discussed by Longfellow, who likens the broken tablets to the physical gravestones in the cemetery. Longfellow also mentions modern Jewish names such as Alvarez and Rivera, who were among the original Jewish settlers in America (in what was then New Amsterdam). This first wave of Jewish immigrants ended up in Newport in the mid-seventeenth century. Rhode Island was the colony (founded by Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson) famous for permitting religious toleration. Unsurprisingly, many Jewish people (often successful merchants) ended up in the seaside city of Newport. As noted by Longfellow in his poem, they occupied a marginalized position in society and lived in specific areas.
In addition to Judaism as such, the larger theme of religious persecution is manifest in Longfellow’s poem. The poet ponders what “burst of Christian hate” drove this group to the unlikely spot of Newport. Many Jews came to America to escape persecution of the Inquisition. Longfellow is sympathetic to this group whom the world marginalized. He calls them “trampled and beaten” and reconciles himself to the fact that “dead nations never rise again.” According to the poet, these people who lived in obscure places around the city now suffered the ultimate injustice of death.