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  • Singing in a Foreign Land: Anglo-Jewish Poetry 1812–1847 by Karen A. Weisman
  • Michael Scrivener
Singing in a Foreign Land: Anglo-Jewish Poetry 1812–1847. By KAREN A. WEISMAN. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. Pp. 250. Cloth, $75.00.

Shelleyans will be familiar with Karen Weisman's first book, Imageless Truths: Shelley's Poetic Fictions (1994), a monograph on Percy Bysshe Shelley's poetry. Her new book, Singing in a Foreign Land: Anglo-Jewish Poetry, 1812–1847, maintains all the first book's depth of attention to poetry while shifting focus to comparatively little-known Anglo-Jewish writers. There is a chapter each on Emma Lyon, Hyman Hurwitz, the Moss sisters (Celia and Marion), and Grace Aguilar, plus a conclusion on the later nineteenth-century poet Amy Levy. This is a strikingly original monograph, as it advances the persuasive thesis that Anglo-Jewish writing is vexed by an ambivalent relation to its own literary traditions, English and Jewish. Jewish writers cannot have a simple connection with the pastoral tradition, which assumes an organic tie with the landscape and the land, because English Jews were expelled from England from 1290 to the mid-seventeenth century, and even after readmission, Jews were not legally allowed for many years to own land. Jewish writers experience "alienation from their own expressive resources" (p. 7), as she eloquently states it. Moreover, Weisman shows how the writers under discussion are acutely conscious of the peculiar rhetorical position in which they find themselves. They have the expressive resource of the English literary tradition, but Jews were not deemed fully English in law until the later part of the nineteenth century. Another expressive resource—Jewish textuality, from the Hebrew Bible to rabbinic commentary and midrashic narrative—is strongly contested by the Christian English, either ignorant of Jewish literature or religiously supercessionist in relation to Judaism, in either case not welcoming the Jewish contribution to English culture.

As is characteristic of Weisman's critical work, her chapters on the five Jewish [End Page 213] writers focus clearly on issues of genre, literary form, and socio-political and religious context. The Lyon chapter brilliantly unpacks the issues of translation, psalmody in the English Christian context, women's religious writing, pastoral, and elegy. Translation is a key focus as well in the Hurwitz chapter, as Weisman shows how Hurwitz and Samuel Taylor Coleridge collaborated on several elegies. (It goes without saying that Weisman is one of the experts in the whole area of elegy, having edited the Oxford Handbook of the Elegy [2010]). The chapter on the Moss sisters highlights their engagement with Romantic poetry—William Wordsworth, Felicia Hemans, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron—by illustrating the young women's revisionary treatment of their literary inheritance, as the Mosses express an ambivalent fondness for aspects of English culture, as well as a passionate love for "Zion." The Aguilar chapter nicely distinguishes between the figures of the Wandering Jew and the Romantic peripatetic, as Aguilar like the Mosses draws upon English Romanticism in a revisionary way to register the anxiety and defiant strength of the Jewish community. Weisman's commentary on Aguilar's "Dialogue Stanzas" (1845) brilliantly contrasts the Anglo-Jewish poem with a similarly dialogic poem of Wordsworth's: Aguilar's poem "signals the death of the symbolic value of a landscape that was never hers anyway" (p. 172). For the Jewish writers, "nature" is never the unproblematic resource of plenitude and continuity that it was for many of the Romantics.

The insights on offer in Singing in a Foreign Land extend from Anglo-Jewish poetry to Romantic writing in general, making us more aware of the nationalistic investments in that literary tradition. Further range is on display in the book's moving coda about the post-Romantic writer Amy Levy and her "struggle to articulate a sense of loss that is finally ineffable because never easily identifiable" (p. 218). Shrewdly bringing in Matthew Arnold's sense of cultural perplexity—"two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born" ("Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse," Fraser's Magazine [April 1855], lines 85–86)—Weisman shows that Levy lacks Arnold's nostalgia for a Christian medieval Faith (medieval...


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