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Poem analysis (1)


Task

Analyse how the speaker’s views on America are presented. Focus on structure, use of language and poetic devices.

Text

1492 by Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)

Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,
Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,
The children of the prophets of the Lord,
Prince, priest, and people, spurned by zealot hate.
Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,
The West refused them, and the East abhorred.
No anchorage the known world could afford,
Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.
Then smiling, thou unveil’dst, O two-faced year,
A virgin world where doors of sunset part,
Saying, “Ho, all who weary, enter here!
There falls each ancient barrier that the art
Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear
Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart!”

Solution

The sonnet “1492” by Emma Lazarus, written in  1883 as a companion piece to the more renowned poem “The New Colossus”, also deals with a vision of America as welcoming and embracing those who are unwelcome in the “old world”, enhanced by the example of the Jewish immigrants.

The first two quatrains contain a direct address to the (personified as “two-faced...Mother of Change and Fate”, l.1) year 1492 which serves two purposes. On the one hand, it illustrates that 1492 is of importance for two very distinct historical events, i.e., the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, but it is also the year in which “the children of the prophets of the Lord” (l.3) were cast out of Spain (l.2). On the other hand, this also serves to give Lazarus' own Jewish background a voice in her meditations on America. For connecting these two events – one a positive and memorable event in the American consciousness, and the other a tragic event impacting the Jewish people – allows the readers to arrive at the conclusion that America might be the safe haven the Jewish people were so desperately lacking.

In the second quatrain, this desperation is further explained by the use of contrasts (the “West” and “East”, e.g., of the ‘old world’, l.6), parallelisms (ll.5/6, 8) and a climax: Neither “the West” nor “the East” (l.6), nor “the known world” (l.7) would allow them to settle down, but repeatedly chased them away.

The first tercet marks the change of fortune for the Jewish, as already alluded to in line 1, where the year 1492 is described as a “ two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate”. “O two-faced year” is repeated in line 9, but this time the connotation is clearly a positive one, as the weeping (l.2) is now replaced by “smiling” (l.9).

The imagery used further in this quatrain is full of biblical allusions: “A virgin world” (l.10) is unveiled (l.9), which reminds the reader of an as yet undisturbed, paradisiac place. The expression “where doors of sunset part” (l.10) evokes an image of the doors of heaven parting to welcome the “weary” (l.11) refugees.

The third tercet contains the second part of the assertion that all those who want to enter America are welcome. It is stated with a certainty that is underlined by the use of multiple stylistic devices, such as enumerating the reasons for segregation or even persecution according to the rule of three, e.g., “race or creed or rank”. The metaphor of a falling “ancient barrier” (l.12), the rings of the biblical walls of Jericho, which fell when Joshua came to fight his righteous battle. The result of this is that “heart” is finally close to “heart”, which is a metaphorical description of the destruction of any barriers between people who are supposed to be equal.

Thus the aforementioned conclusion that 1492 marks the year in which the fate of the Jews changed for the better appears – according to the message put forward in this poem – to have come true. Lazarus’ poem paints a picture of America as the country where equality, which is not incidentally one of the main concepts connected to the American Dream, has become reality for those who were outcasts before, like the Jewish people. 

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