The Reader’s Den is NYPL’s online book discussion forum, but during the month of April, we’re all about poetry. This week’s poem, "City Visions," was chosen with a view to celebrating Immigrant Heritage Week, which starts April 17. It was written by the same poet whose words grace the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses…”).
City Visions by Emma Lazarus
As the blind Milton's memory of light,
The deaf Beethoven's phantasy of tone,
Wrought joys for them surpassing all things known
In our restricted sphere of sound and sight,—
So while the glaring streets of brick and stone
Vex with heat, noise, and dust from morn till night,
I will give rein to Fancy, taking flight
From dismal now and here, and dwell alone
With new-enfranchised senses. All day long,
Think ye 't is I, who sit 'twixt darkened walls,
While ye chase beauty over land and sea?
Uplift on wings of some rare poet's song,
Where the wide billow laughs and leaps and falls,
I soar cloud-high, free as the the winds are free.
Who grasps the substance? who 'mid shadows strays?
He who within some dark-bright wood reclines,
'Twixt sleep and waking, where the needled pines
Have cushioned all his couch with soft brown sprays?
He notes not how the living water shines,
Trembling along the cliff, a flickering haze,
Brimming a wine-bright pool, nor lifts his gaze
To read the ancient wonders and the signs.
Does he possess the actual, or do I,
Who paint on air more than his sense receives,
The glittering pine-tufts with closed eyes behold,
Breathe the strong resinous perfume, see the sky
Quiver like azure flame between the leaves,
And open unseen gates with key of gold?
Feel free to use the following questions as a springboard for thought, and post your insights and impressions in the comments section.
1. In the first lines Lazarus alludes to the fact that the poet Milton was blind and that Beethoven was deaf for part of his life. Given this information, how do you interpret what the speaker goes on to say about the city’s effect on perception?
2. What assumptions can we make about the “ye” the narrator is addressing in the first half of the poem?
3. What comparison is being made in the second half?
Thanks for participating! For more information on Emma Lazarus (including the name of the poet whose portrait graced her mantel), try Credo Reference, a database you can access from any internet computer with your library card. Credo offers the full text of many literary reference works, including The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English.
Check us out next Wednesday for a new poem and new food for thought!