Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Chopin by Emma Lazarus (Vol. 1, No. 2)
Soon after Chopin’s death, his friend and rival, Franz Liszt established the topos of Chopin’s art as pure poetry in a biography published in 1852. In Liszt’s lofty language (co-authored by Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein), Chopin “moved among us like a spirit consecrated by all that Poland possesses of poetry.”
Via several English-language editions of Liszt’s biography and through the efforts of its American translator, Martha Walker Cook (1807-1874), the image of Chopin as a poet of sound entered American letters. A nearly forgotten writer and translator, Cook published essays in the Continental Monthly Magazine and served for a time as its editor. In addition to translating Chopin’s biography, she also translated works of Polish romantic literature including poetry by Zygmunt Krasiński. Her Liszt translation, dedicated to a forgotten Polish émigré pianist Jan N. Pychowski (1818-1900), was first published in 1863 and by 1880 reached its fourth edition.
American poet Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), knew this book and she loved Chopin’s music. Lazarus came from a prominent Jewish family and was educated at home in New York City where she was born. She knew many languages and had broad artistic interests; she wrote a novel, two plays, and translations of Jewish poetry. She also edited and translated works of Goethe and Heine for their first American publications. Her main title to fame is The New Colossus, a sonnet written in 1883 and partly engraved on the Statue of Liberty. All Americans know of her call to open the doors to freedom for all immigrants: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
Lazarus’s poem about Chopin established a conceptual sphere in which to view Chopin’s oeuvre: a world of exalted spirituality, rich symbolism, subtle elegance, angelic sensitivity, and aristocratic sophistication. For instance, musicologist Jeffrey Kallberg’s study of gender issues in Chopin reception, borrows Lazarus’s phrases to capture the “effeminate” image of the composer. The four-stanza poem about the great composer, known for his perfectionist polishing of his musical gems, consists of four sonnets, each with a different variant of the rhyme scheme:
I. a b a b c d c d e f e f g g
II. a b b a c d d c e e f e e f
III. a b a b c d c d e f e f g g
IV. a b a b c d c d e f f e g g
Stanzas I and II are in the form of the English sonnet; stanza IV is its variant and stanza II has elements from an Italian sonnet, with its characteristic avoidance of the final, rhymed couplet. The long, ten-syllable lines flow smoothly, with rich imagery. For Lazarus, in Chopin’s music,
… beneath the strain
Of reckless revelry, vibrates and sobs
One fundamental chord of constant pain,
The pulse-beat of the poet’s heart that throbs.
So yearns, though all the dancing waves rejoice,
The troubled sea's disconsolate, deep voice.
It is hard not to cite the next sonnet-stanza in its entirety:
Who shall proclaim the golden fable false
Of Orpheus' miracles? This subtle strain
Above our prose-world's sordid loss and gain
Lightly uplifts us. With the rhythmic waltz,
The lyric prelude, the nocturnal song
Of love and languor, varied visions rise,
That melt and blend to our enchanted eyes.
The Polish poet who sleeps silenced long,
The seraph-souled musician, breathes again
Eternal eloquence, immortal pain.
Revived the exalted face we know so well,
The illuminated eyes, the fragile frame,
Slowly consuming with its inward flame,
We stir not, speak not, lest we break the spell.
The matter was set, then. Chopin was a poet of a very peculiar kind: “The poet who must sound earth, heaven, and hell!” (Lazarus). In attempting to thus define the poetic task of music, Lazarus had unknowingly followed in the footsteps of Polish romantic poet, Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821-1883), who, in his masterly poem about Chopin’s piano, Fortepian Szopena, articulated the timelessness of perfection found in Chopin’s works, contrasted with the violent destruction of his instrument by the Russian soldiers. But this is a topic for another day…
Emma Lazarus's "Chopin" is reprinted in the section on Chopin's "Name" in the poetry anthology Chopin with Cherries: A Tribute in Verse (Moonrise Press, 2010). Finding this sophisticated contribution to Chopin reception was one of my greatest joys as the volume's editor.
(c) 2010 by Maja Trochimczyk
Image credit: Postcard “F. Chopin Music and Visions” with a fragment
of the Nocturne in F-sharp Major, Op. 15, No. 2 and a vision of
the Łazienki Palace in Warsaw. Published Nakładem Braci Rzepkowicz
in Warsaw, Poland, c. 1900s-1910s. Maja Trochimczyk Collection.