An Epistle - Poem by Emma Lazarus
Master and Sage, greetings and health to thee,
From thy most meek disciple! Deign once more
Endure me at thy feet, enlighten me,
As when upon my boyish head of yore,
Midst the rapt circle gathered round thy knee
Thy sacred vials of learning thou didst pour.
By the large lustre of thy wisdom orbed
Be my black doubts illumined and absorbed.
Oft I recall that golden time when thou,
Born for no second station, heldst with us
The Rabbi's chair, who art priest and bishop now;
And we, the youth of Israel, curious,
Hung on thy counsels, lifted reverent brow
Unto thy sanctity, would fain discuss
With thee our Talmud problems good and evil,
Till startled by the risen stars o'er Seville.
For on the Synagogue's high-pillared porch
Thou didst hold session, till the sudden sun
Beyond day's purple limit dropped his torch.
Then we, as dreamers, woke, to find outrun
Time's rapid sands. The flame that may not scorch,
Our hearts caught from thine eyes, thou Shining One.
I scent not yet sweet lemon-groves in flower,
But I re-breathe the peace of that deep hour.
We kissed the sacred borders of thy gown,
Brow-aureoled with thy blessing, we went forth
Through the hushed byways of the twilight town.
Then in all life but one thing seemed of worth,
To seek, find, love the Truth. She set her crown
Upon thy head, our Master, at thy birth;
She bade thy lips drop honey, fired thine eyes
With the unclouded glow of sun-steeped skies.
Forgive me, if I dwell on that which, viewed
From thy new vantage-ground, must seem a mist
Of error, by auroral youth endued
With alien lustre. Still in me subsist
Those reeking vapors; faith and gratitude
Still lead me to the hand my boy-lips kissed
For benison and guidance. Not in wrath,
Master, but in wise patience, point my path.
For I, thy servant, gather in one sheaf
The venomed shafts of slander, which thy word
Shall shrivel to small dust. If haply grief,
Or momentary pain, I deal, my Lord
Blame not thy servant's zeal, nor be thou deaf
Unto my soul's blind cry for light. Accord-
Pitying my love, if too superb to care
For hate-soiled name-an answer to my prayer.
To me, who, vine to stone, clung close to thee,
The very base of life appeared to quake
When first I knew thee fallen from us, to be
A tower of strength among our foes, to make
'Twixt Jew and Jew deep-cloven enmity.
I have wept gall and blood for thy dear sake.
But now with temperate soul I calmly search
Motive and cause that bound thee to the Church.
Four motives possible therefor I reach-
Ambition, doubt, fear, or mayhap-conviction.
I hear in turn ascribed thee all and each
By ignorant folk who part not truth from fiction.
But I, whom even thyself didst stoop to teach,
May poise the scales, weigh this with that confliction,
Yea, sift the hid grain motive from the dense,
Dusty, eye-blinding chaff of consequence.
Ambition first! I find no fleck thereof
In all thy clean soul. What! could glory, gold,
Or sated senses lure thy lofty love?
No purple cloak to shield thee from the cold,
No jeweled sign to flicker thereabove,
And dazzle men to homage-joys untold
Of spiritual treasure, grace divine,
Alone (so saidst thou) coveting for thine!
I saw thee mount with deprecating air,
Step after step, unto our Jewish throne
Of supreme dignity, the Rabbi's chair;
Shrinking from public honors thrust upon
Thy meek desert, regretting even there
The placid habit of thy life foregone;
Silence obscure, vast peace and austere days
Passed in wise contemplation, prayer, and praise.
One less than thou had ne'er known such regret.
How must thou suffer, who so lov'st the shade,
In Fame's full glare, whom one stride more shall set
Upon the Papal seat! I stand dismayed,
Familiar with thy fearful soul, and yet
Half glad, perceiving modest worth repaid
Even by the Christians! Could thy soul deflect?
No, no, thrice no! Ambition I reject!
Next doubt. Could doubt have swayed thee, then I ask,
How enters doubt within the soul of man?
Is it a door that opens, or a mask
That falls? and Truth's resplendent face we scan.
Nay, 't is a creeping, small, blind worm, whose task
Is gnawing at Faith's base; the whole vast plan
Rots, crumbles, eaten inch by inch within,
And on its ruins falsehood springs and sin.
But thee no doubt confused, no problems vexed.
Thy father's faith for thee proved bright and sweet.
Thou foundst no rite superfluous, no text
Obscure; the path was straight before thy feet.
Till thy baptismal day, thou, unperplexed
By foreign dogma, didst our prayers repeat,
Honor the God of Israel, fast and feast,
Even as thy people's wont, from first to least.
Yes, Doubt I likewise must discard. Not sleek,
Full-faced, erect of head, men walk, when doubt
Writhes at their entrails; pinched and lean of cheek,
With brow pain-branded, thou hadst strayed about
As midst live men a ghost condemned to seek
That soul he may nor live nor die without.
No doubts the font washed from thee, thou didst glide
From creed to creed, complete, sane-souled, clear-eyed.
Thy pardon, Master, if I dare sustain
The thesis thou couldst entertain a fear.
I would but rout thine enemies, who feign
Ignoble impulse prompted thy career.
I will but weigh the chances and make plain
To Envy's self the monstrous jest appear.
Though time, place, circumstance confirmed in seeming,
One word from thee should frustrate all their scheming.
Was Israel glad in Seville on the day
Thou didst renounce him? Then mightst thou indeed
Snap finger at whate'er thy slanderers say.
Lothly must I admit, just then the seed
Of Jacob chanced upon a grievous way.
Still from the wounds of that red year we bleed.
The curse had fallen upon our heads-the sword
Was whetted for the chosen of the Lord.
There where we flourished like a fruitful palm,
We were uprooted, spoiled, lopped limb from limb.
A bolt undreamed of out of heavens calm,
So cracked our doom. We were destroyed by him
Whose hand since childhood we had clasped. With balm
Our head had been anointed, at the brim
Our cup ran over-now our day was done,
Our blood flowed free as water in the sun.
Midst the four thousand of our tribe who held
Glad homes in Seville, never a one was spared,
Some slaughtered at their hearthstones, some expelled
To Moorish slavery. Cunningly ensnared,
Baited and trapped were we; their fierce monks yelled
And thundered from our Synagogues, while flared
The Cross above the Ark. Ah, happiest they
Who fell unconquered martyrs on that day!
For some (I write it with flushed cheek, bowed head),
Given free choice 'twixt death and shame, chose shame,
Denied the God who visibly had led
Their fathers, pillared in a cloud of flame,
Bathed in baptismal waters, ate the bread
Which is their new Lord's body, took the name
Marranos the Accursed, whom equally
Jew, Moor, and Christian hate, despise, and flee.
Even one no less than an Abarbanel
Prized miserable length of days, above
Integrity of soul. Midst such who fell,
Far be it, however, from my duteous love,
Master, to reckon thee. Thine own lips tell
How fear nor torture thy firm will could move.
How thou midst panic nowise disconcerted,
By Thomas of Aquinas wast converted!
Truly I know no more convincing way
To read so wise an author, than was thine.
When burning Synagogues changed night to day,
And red swords underscored each word and line.
That was a light to read by! Who'd gainsay
Authority so clearly stamped divine?
On this side, death and torture, flame and slaughter,
On that, a harmless wafer and clean water.
Thou couldst not fear extinction for our race;
Though Christian sword and fire from town to town
Flash double bladed lightning to efface
Israel's image-though we bleed, burn, drown
Through Christendom-'t is but a scanty space.
Still are the Asian hills and plains our own,
Still are we lords in Syria, still are free,
Nor doomed to be abolished utterly.
One sole conclusion hence at last I find,
Thou whom ambition, doubt, nor fear could swerve,
Perforce hast been persuaded through the mind,
Proved, tested the new dogmas, found them serve
Thy spirit's needs, left flesh and sense behind,
Accepted without shrinking or reserve,
The trans-substantial bread and wine, the Christ
At whose shrine thine own kin were sacrificed.
Here then the moment comes when I crave light.
All's dark to me. Master, if I be blind,
Thou shalt unseal my lids and bless with sight,
Or groping in the shadows, I shall find
Whether within me or without, dwell night.
Oh cast upon my doubt-bewildered mind
One ray from thy clear heaven of sun-bright faith,
Grieving, not wroth, at what thy servant saith.
Where are the signs fulfilled whereby all men
Should know the Christ? Where is the wide-winged peace
Shielding the lamb within the lion's den?
The freedom broadening with the wars that cease?
Do foes clasp hands in brotherhood again?
Where is the promised garden of increase,
When like a rose the wilderness should bloom?
Earth is a battlefield and Spain a tomb.
Our God of Sabaoth is an awful God
Of lightnings and of vengeance,-Christians say.
Earth trembled, nations perished at his nod;
His Law has yielded to a milder sway.
Theirs is the God of Love whose feet have trod
Our common earth-draw near to him and pray,
Meek-faced, dove-eyed, pure-browed, the Lord of life,
Know him and kneel, else at your throat the knife!
This is the God of Love, whose altars reek
With human blood, who teaches men to hate;
Torture past words, or sins we may not speak
Wrought by his priests behind the convent-grate.
Are his priests false? or are his doctrines weak
That none obeys him? State at war with state,
Church against church-yea, Pope at feud with Pope
In these tossed seas what anchorage for hope?
Not only for the sheep without the fold
Is the knife whetted, who refuse to share
Blessings the shepherd wise doth not withhold
Even from the least among his flock-but there
Midmost the pale, dissensions manifold,
Lamb flaying lamb, fierce sheep that rend and tear.
Master, if thou to thy pride's goal should come,
Where wouldst thou throne-at Avignon or Rome?
I handle burning questions, good my lord,
Such as may kindle fagots, well I wis.
Your Gospel not denies our older Word,
But in a way completes and betters this.
The Law of Love shall supersede the sword,
So runs the promise, but the facts I miss.
Already needs this wretched generation,
A voice divine-a new, third revelation.
Two Popes and their adherents fulminate
Ban against ban, and to the nether hell
Condemn each other, while the nations wait
Their Christ to thunder forth from Heaven, and tell
Who is his rightful Vicar, reinstate
His throne, the hideous discord to dispel.
Where shall I seek, master, while such things be,
Celestial truth, revealed certainty!
Not miracles I doubt, for how dare man,
Chief miracle of life's mystery, say HE KNOWS?
How may he closely secret causes scan,
Who learns not whence he comes nor where he goes?
Like one who walks in sleep a doubtful span
He gropes through all his days, till Death unclose
His cheated eyes and in one blinding gleam,
Wakes, to discern the substance from the dream.
I say not therefore I deny the birth,
The Virgin's motherhood, the resurrection,
Who know not how mine own soul came to earth,
Nor what shall follow death. Man's imperfection
May bound not even in thought the height and girth
Of God's omnipotence; neath his direction
We may approach his essence, but that He
Should dwarf Himself to us-it cannot be!
The God who balances the clouds, who spread
The sky above us like a molten glass,
The God who shut the sea with doors, who laid
The corner-stone of earth, who caused the grass
Spring forth upon the wilderness, and made
The darkness scatter and the night to pass-
That He should clothe Himself with flesh, and move
Midst worms a worm-this, sun, moon, stars disprove.
Help me, O thou who wast my boyhood's guide,
I bend my exile-weary feet to thee,
Teach me the indivisible to divide,
Show me how three are one and One is three!
How Christ to save all men was crucified,
Yet I and mine are damned eternally.
Instruct me, Sage, why Virtue starves alone,
While falsehood step by step ascends the throne.
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