Karen Weisman, “Anglo-Jewish Culture and the Condition of England: The Poetry of Marion and Celia Moss”


In 1839, two young Jewish women poets, Marion and Celia Moss, published their first volume of poetry, Early Efforts. It is a volume laden with multiple—and often mutually contradictory—presentations of subjectivity, many of them relating to their Jewish authors’ consideration of England as a nation, an idea, and as an anchor for identity. 1839 also marks the publication date of Thomas Carlyle’s pamphlet, Chartism, in which he invoked “the condition of England question,” a phrase he coined to elucidate his dismay at the plight of the working classes and the consequent upheavals which were then roiling the nation. In bringing these two publications together under the rubric of this essay, I am hoping to shed light on some aspects of the context for Anglo-Jewish Romanticism, especially as it affects the self-understanding of its authors. Our consideration of the condition of England provides a forum in which to understand not only the grounds for agitation on the part of the disenfranchised but also the self-contradictory positions about the idea of England itself taken up with remarkable poignancy by the Mosses in their poetry. In so far as the stability of English identity depends, in part, on the cultural reification of hearth and home within the wider confines of the landscape, basic questions arise about the quotidian reality of English subjects: whose hearth, whose home, whose valorized landscape? These are the questions for the champions of disenfranchised industrial workers no less than for Jewish authors struggling to define an identity within an England which for its Jewish population has been, at turns (and sometimes simultaneously), alienating, sheltering, dismissive, grudgingly tolerant. I appropriate Carlyle’s questions of 1839 as a springboard into a discussion of the Moss poets’ volume of 1839, and its vexed reflections on their experience of England’s condition.

Cover of Moss Book

Figure 1: First page of the Moss’ _Tales of Jewish History_ (1843)

In 1839, two young Jewish women poets, Marion and Celia Moss, published their first volume of poetry, Early Efforts: A Volume of Poems, by the Misses Moss, of the Hebrew Nation, Aged 18 and 16. It is a volume laden with multiple—and often mutually contradictory—presentations of subjectivity, many of them relating to their Jewish authors’ consideration of England as a nation, an idea, and as an anchor for identity. 1839 also marks the publication date of Thomas Carlyle’s pamphlet, Chartism, in which he invoked “the condition of England question,” a phrase he coined to elucidate his dismay at the plight of the working classes and the consequent upheavals which were then roiling the nation. The condition of England, in fact, was to be taken up as a touchstone phrase for the effects of industrialization on the working poor; the “condition of England” novel, a sub-genre of early Victorian fiction, soon came to prominence, Dickens’ Hard Times being the most accessible example. In citing Carlyle in relation to the Moss sisters, I am hoping to shed light on some of the context for Anglo-Jewish Romanticism, especially as it affects the self-understanding of its authors. I do not suggest that Carlyle or the Mosses were reading one another at this point, and I am not positing direct influence. Our consideration of the condition of England provides a forum in which to understand not only the grounds for agitation on the part of the disenfranchised, but also the self-contradictory positions about the idea of England itself taken up with remarkable poignancy by the Mosses in their poetry. In so far as the stability of English identity depends, in part, on the cultural reification of hearth and home within the wider confines of the landscape, the basic questions about the quotidian reality of English subjects are increasingly being asked: whose hearth, whose home, whose valorized landscape? These are the questions for the champions of disenfranchised industrial workers no less than for Jewish authors, struggling to define an identity within an England which for its Jewish population has been, at turns (and sometimes simultaneously), alienating, sheltering, dismissive, grudgingly tolerant. I would appropriate Carlyle’s questions of 1839 as a springboard into a discussion of the Moss poets’ volume of 1839, and its vexed reflections on their experience of England’s condition.

The immediate occasion of Carlyle’s pamphlet was the radical campaign being undertaken by the chartists demanding reform of parliamentary rules. (See Chris Vanden Bossche, “On Chartism.”) Having collected more than 1.25 million signatures for “the People’s Charter,” which had been composed for the London Working Men’s Association, the Chartists nonetheless failed to realize any of their goals when they presented the Charter to the House of Commons in June 1839. These included goals intended to address deficits in the Reform Bill of 1832, which enlarged the franchise, but only for property-owning middle class men. Now the Chartists were demanding universal male suffrage; constituencies of equal size; secret balloting; payment for Members of Parliament; parliamentary elections to take place every year; and abolition of the property qualification for becoming a Member of Parliament. The unrest that followed the rejection of the People’s Charter was widely seen as confirmation of the putatively radical nature of the demands. Indeed, for many, the fear of Chartism and the Chartists became linked with the memory of the French Revolution (see Levin, esp. 26-29). Carlyle took up the subject of Chartism in large part because he wished to champion the rights of the working classes, but not consistently on terms that would frankly make common cause with most Chartists themselves. For Carlyle, the neglect of and ingratitude toward the working classes were scandalous, and the official suppression by force of those who continued to agitate for reform was a spectacle that diminished the integrity of Parliament:

A Reformed Parliament, one would think, should inquire into popular discontents before they get the length of pikes and torches! For what end at all are men, Honourable Members and Reform Members, sent to map iconSt. Stephen’s, with clamour and effort; kept talking, struggling, motioning and counter-motioning? The condition of the great body of people in a country is the condition of the country itself. (153)

Are Jews properly a part of the “great body of people in [the country]”? May they be counted within the great body, inextricably within it? These are questions that do not occupy Carlyle specifically, of course, but in the wake of the political and cultural changes of the times, changes that occasion deep questions about the condition of the historically disenfranchised and ignored, they are questions that do naturally arise among the Jews and among those who contemplate the condition of the Jews in England. The historical struggle to abolish the Jewish civil disabilities ended, depending on how one counts, either in 1858 (when Lionel de Rothschild took his seat in the House of Commons), or 1871, with the abolition of the University Tests Act, which suspended the requirement to subscribe to the articles of the Church of England as a condition of holding fellowships in England’s ancient universities (Feldman, esp. “Jewish Emancipation and Political Argument in Early Victorian England” 28-47, passim). The immediate catalyst for the agitation that led up to this political change was, in fact, occasioned by Numa Hartog, son of Marion Moss. He had been named “Chief Wrangler” at map iconCambridge University, but was unable to take up the fellowship that came with it because he was a professing Jew (Alderman). I will return to the question of Jewish civil disabilities later, but it is important to note now that the condition of England question involved a limited engagement with only a circumscribed number of the disenfranchised. The great glorious nation could not function with most of its working poor living in deplorable conditions, but “nation” was still defined on “the true faith of a Christian,” and national Christianity could not, for most people, be separated from the central meaning of Englishness. What is the condition of Jews in England when it is unclear if Jews can be understood as of England?

Among the remedies proposed by Carlyle for the deplorable nature of the condition of England was a stronger proprietary role to be played by the landed aristocracy. Not content to see the Chartists’ demand for autonomy on its own terms, he asked that the aristocracy match its privileges to its tacit obligations, which included proper guidance, or shepherding, of the working poor. As Michael Levin argues, “for Carlyle, then, the truth of power was that it carries the obligation of proper leadership” (45). The neglect by the governing classes—and “governing” is how he perceived their proper role—is the immediate cause of the unrest, and Carlyle warns that further unrest will follow in the absence of firmer guidance. Such direction can only be forthcoming when understanding of and sympathy for the working classes are present:

The struggle that divides the upper and lower in society over Europe, and more painfully and notably in England than elsewhere, this too is a struggle which will end and adjust itself as all other struggles do and have done, by making the right clear and the might clear; not otherwise, than by that. Meantime, the questions, why are the Working Classes discontented; what is their condition, economical, moral, in their houses and their hearts, as it is in reality and as they figure it to themselves to be; what do they complain of; what ought they, and ought they not to complain of?—these are measurable questions; on some of these any common mortal, did he but turn his eyes to them, might throw some light. (156)

This effort to understand the heart and soul, as it were, of the working classes is joined both to a remarkable effort to understand further their own self-understanding (“and as they figure it to themselves to be”) and to a paternalistic effort to understand what they ought not to be complaining of. Carlyle here treats class as if it were a category for identity; that is, he harnesses rhetoric better suited to discussion about belief. The conceptions of Englishness as well as class to which Carlyle subscribes are generalizations in which some segments of the population would never have been able to locate themselves. This provides me with a segue into a discussion of the publication of Early Efforts in 1839. For in 1839 we are in the midst not only of the political agitation known as Chartism but of another profound set of changes occurring in England: the period during which Jews are slowly integrated into the mainstream of English life (Endelman, esp. “Poverty to Prosperity [1800-1870]” 79-124). Political emancipation, however, is not tantamount to cultural integration. For the Jews of England, still at this time labouring under various civil disabilities, and still largely considered a foreign race in England, self-understanding is related to a complicated rapport with the English political nation as well as the English cultural inheritance. Furthermore, the literary expression of that relationship throws into sharp relief Jewish authors’ conflicted apprehension of the subtler forms of alienation, some of them relating to the Jewish civil disabilities, and others relating to the existential condition of the Jews in a definably Christian nation (Ruderman, esp. “Translation and Transformation: The Englishing of Jewish Culture” 215-68). Where Carlyle asks what it means to be a working class Englishman in 1839, and what that very question means to working class Englishmen, the Moss sisters in their poetry interrogate the meaning of subjectivity within the paternalistic structure that Carlyle identifies also as the remedy for Chartism.

I situate my reading of the poetry of the Moss sisters, then, in the terms which have been defining my larger project, from which it is drawn. I consider early nineteenth-century Anglo-Jewish poetry in the context of its authors’ refractions of their literary inheritance (see especially my articles in Mahoney and Spector: “Anglo-Jewish Romantic Poetry” and  “Mourning, Translation, Pastoral”). Among nineteenth-century Anglo-Jewish authors, we find poets who would situate themselves within the master narrative of the grand tradition of British literary history, however ironic that positioning of their “natural” inheritance must sometimes be. The implicit claim to inheritance is vexed in several ways, and it sometimes throws into relief what I describe as an alienation from their own expressive resources. First, the grand tradition of British pastoral is a vexed inheritance for the Jews, not only because of the essential cosmopolitanism of the Jewish population in England in the early nineteenth century, but also because pastoral, and British pastoral in particular, depend on the identification of a stable rootedness within the land, a shared valorization of the landscape which of necessity echoes the nationalist attachments—the historical lineage—of its inhabitants. British hearth and home depend inextricably on history—a history of stable rootedness, that is, in the forum which of necessity must underwrite such comfort and complacency. History in the land of the British landscape is, for the Jews, complicated, not least because their relative ease, both economic and social, by the early nineteenth century belies the longer history. The Jews were expelled from England between 1290 and 1656, and they still laboured under various civil disabilities well into the nineteenth century. These included exclusion from membership in parliament, an inability to trade in the map iconCity or on the Exchange, and myriad other civil disabilities. In fact, whatever the safe haven and safe refuge by which the Jewish population generally understood their British sojourn to be defined, the Jews were still considered a foreign race in nineteenth-century England, and in the early part of the century their numbers were relatively small. According to Todd Endelman, by 1830 there were about 30,000 Jews living in England, with roughly two-thirds of the population residing in London (79). Anglo-Jewish poets mobilized various strategies to engage with British Romanticism even while recognizing their alienation from it, and for some, even while ironizing their relative investments in it. While many Jewish poets in England in the earlier part of the century, such as Grace Aguilar, Emma Lyon, and Hyman Hurwitz, address themselves to their cultural positioning, the Moss sisters experiment with the posture that they may take their cultural authority for granted, as if no impediments, political or existential, could obstruct their lyric power. The question of cultural entitlement surfaces only when their youth and status as women are foregrounded. Otherwise, to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land itself is offered as their just inheritance, even as the English Jew in their poetry is presented often in the exile’s habit, longing for Zion. Such forthrightness is perpetually subjected to ironic reflection; their poetry, which often stages a confidence in the simplicity of their hybrid identities, also pulls the rug out from under their own self-definitions. Entitled, yet self-consciously in exile; mature in insight, yet with a still nascent identity; grateful for safe haven, yet angry at England’s history of inhospitality and violence towards the Jews: what we have, finally, is the presentation of a selfhood hovering between various anchors. If this does not quite leave them lost at sea, then it does make for a perpetually shifting landscape.

Celia and Marion Moss jointly published their first and only book of poetry in 1839, when they were eighteen and sixteen, respectively. The poems are presented as if by a single voice; they do not differentiate authorship between the two sisters. Though the book did go into a second edition, and though they continued to publish poetry in periodicals occasionally throughout their lives, this was their only book of verse. Both women went on to write prose fiction, both together and individually, and Marion, now Marion Hartog (having married Alphonse Hartog in 1845), established the Jewish Sabbath Journal in 1855, the first Jewish women’s periodical in history (Galchinsky 107). The title of the poetry collection, Early Efforts, is obtrusively apologetic not on account of the Jewish preoccupations of much of the verse, but because the authors are merely teenagers. Likewise the preface, which pleads, “If we have been too presumptuous in deeming them fit for publication, we are sure that sufficient allowances will be made for all the disadvantages under which we have laboured, and which are at all times inseparable from first attempts.” In this, the Moss sisters are merely conforming to the convention by which women present their poetry. A prefatory apology for the presumption both establishes necessary deference and disclaims it. I will be suggesting that the signalling of juvenilia, however, is not the only sense in which the collection is an “early effort.” It is early in its nascent effort at self-definition; more broadly, it is early in its positioning of the Jew, and especially of the Jewish woman, within English society: the effort to define the English Jew within, and relative to, mainstream English culture is still immature in this part of the nineteenth century.

The Moss children grew up with many of the benefits of a secularizing household. Their father read secular literary books aloud to the family, including the poetry of Byron. When the girls were discovered writing their own poetry, however, their father objected: girls should not be participating in activities that could distract them from the duties of femininity or make them less marriageable. The first challenge to their cultural adeptness, then, was their father, who threatened to burn their books if they persisted in their writing efforts. Having been threatened with destruction of their books, the girls coped with the crisis by committing their favourite works of literature to memory (Galchinsky 107-8). As such, the English canon, or at least parts thereof, were fully internalized, digested sufficiently to guard against any external opposition. If Jewish identity is at odds with English culture, at least in part, then here we have an instance of Jewish social norms inverting the budding process of Jewish cultural emancipation. No Emma Lyon, with her brilliant inheritance of learning at her father’s knee, the Moss sisters learned from their father both the love of English literature and the lesson that producing it would be a negation of their proper identity as perceived by the Jewish father. For all these histrionics, they took up the pen again, and published Early Efforts, when their father fell ill. This was undertaken to supplement the family income, and there is no suggestion that they met with resistance by any family members.

It is no wonder, then, that many of their early efforts to write poetry are early efforts to define themselves as Jewish women within the English nation. What iteration of the writerly self could they possibly produce under the shadows cast by their earliest childhood efforts, ones that yielded only a father’s volatile scorn? One immediate need would be to present themselves as feminine still, authentic women still, and entirely in compliance with traditional expectations. Still marriageable and still infused with the spirit of sensibility, then, they offer pious versions of themselves that would put their conservatism beyond doubt. They include lyrics of sentimental reflection such as “To a Young Mother,” “To a Robin,” or “The Tear of Sympathy.” Not to be perceived as distracted from the duties of femininity, there are sufficient lyrics in this collection to reassure any interested suitor or ambivalent father.  “To a Young Mother” is paradigmatic in this regard:

Thou hast heard thy child speak, and Oh! What is more dear
Than the first prattling accents of childhood to hear;
To the heart of a parent a bliss worth all blisses,
And the mouth of the speaker is cover’d with kisses. (p. 2)

The unremarkable sentimentalism here appears superficially to lack nuance. The lyric’s authors are surely qualified for marriage and child-bearing. They are young, conventional women writing these lines, and nothing more. Or are they?

These are young women who know something also about the relationship between a child’s speech and the parent’s response. They know something, that is, about the relationship between the presumption of lyric authority and the audience that processes lyric. The simplicity of the above-quoted lines is also suggestive of the complications of their own efforts to be heard. Focusing as it does on the parent’s pleasure in hearing the child’s first words, one may perhaps detect some resonance of the girls’ first efforts at writing poetry. In their case, however, the pleasingly simple paradigm is inverted: their father became enraged, after all, when they were discovered writing poetry, and he threatened to burn their books if they did not leave off writing. The speaker of this poem celebrates first and foremost the child’s first words, the “first prattling accents of childhood.”  The qualities of listening, and of knowing when to listen, and of knowing when and when not to speak, in fact function as clear leitmotifs throughout the collection. The Jews are represented in “The Feast of Trumpets” (by which is intended the Jewish New Year, Rosh Ha-Shanna) as “The listening people” (43). Lovers in this volume not only speak but also listen with particular acuity, as do the pious. What does it mean to be heard, then? This is a question that has been persistently asked not only of Jewish poets, not only by women poets more generally, but by all those who toil in lyric.

It is a question that is also asked in interrogations of the condition of England that seek to access the self-understanding of the conventionally disenfranchised. If the effort is made more difficult by being a woman, and yet more difficult by being a Jewish woman in a Christian land, and still more complicated by being young and inexperienced, it surely becomes even more vexed if the authors are young Jewish women whose father threatens violence to their books if they continue to write. This is no mere biographical reduction of the poetry. For if Early Efforts is anything, it is an uneasy effort to establish credentials in so many different venues that the collection finally reads as a disconnected series of experiments in the fashioning and presentation of selfhood. I would suggest that the very political as well as cultural conditions in which they are situated in England undergird such volatile self-fashioning. The voice that performs the fashioning will now be my concern.

The Moss sisters are themselves canny listeners, and they persistently represent the speaking voice as deeply invested in interpreting sounds and in gauging their effect on others. In 1833, John Stuart Mill famously tried to define lyric poetry, and his very Romanticism-inflected response was to distinguish it from eloquence, which is merely heard: lyric is “overheard.” But this notion of an overheard lyric voice communing with its own subjectivity depends for its efficacy on a confidence in the consensual understanding of the audience that overhears. Canonical Romantic poets, to be sure, sometimes ironize and inflect such assumptions, but received notions about the relationship between lyric and reading audience retain a privileged position throughout the period. Romantic subjectivity is still the ground of a common understanding that presupposes that we all know—if only we could truly hear—that which is most permanent and enduring in human nature. It depends, in other words, on a subjectivity that takes its place within a fiction about an identifiable common humanity. The generalization of the human, and the confidence in the subjectivity of the overhearing listeners, are diluted in this volume by the Moss sisters. The definition of subjectivity to which they sometimes gesture does not quite take root in them, at least not with categorical or unquestioned stability. Carlyle chastises Parliament for its inability to establish insight about the dissatisfaction of the nation and for its refusal to give voice to those who are incommunicado, by which he understands the vast body of the people. The Mosses are preoccupied with the various meanings of voice, but neither the voice of Parliament nor the voice of Carlyle’s outrage could properly appropriate their unique position. It is not that the Moss sisters are industrial workers, of course; I draw the analogy because neither are they members of the landed aristocracy nor, for that matter, of the English nation as conventionally defined. Of Parliament—and remember, professing Jews were excluded from becoming members—Carlyle complains: “Whatsoever great British interest can the least speak for itself, for that beyond all they are called to speak. They are either speakers for that great dumb toiling class which cannot speak, or they are nothing that one can well specify” (154). Since “the Collective Wisdom of the Nation has availed us as good as nothing whatever” (154), Carlyle is left to wish for “a genuine understanding by the upper classes of society what it is that the under classes intrinsically mean; a clear interpretation of the thought which at heart torments these wild inarticulate souls, struggling there, with inarticulate uproar, like dumb creatures in pain, unable to speak what is in them!” (155). The Mosses address themselves to the nuances of voice, to the inchoate longings of their souls as much as to the incapacity of their interlocutors fully to comprehend their utterances. They constitute their voice, however, in the full knowledge that they do not fully qualify for membership within the generalization of English community by which they could be spoken for.

Returning to one of the questions that I raised earlier—how naïve, or how unsophisticated, is the voice in the lyric “To a Young Mother”— it is important to recognize that this voice is staged in a volume that contains other iterations of agency. In this poem, other sounds are contrasted with those of the child, and they all pale in comparison. But the father’s role as listener also plays a crucial part in the literary inheritance claimed by the Moss sisters. Coleridge’s famous “Frost at Midnight” tells of the absolute silence which forms the background to the sound of his son’s breathing. It is this sound, which he fondly hears while thinking about the disappointments in his own life and early childhood, which connects with nothing less than the eternal language of God:

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the interspersed vacancies
And momentary pauses of thought!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.  (44-62)

Coleridge’s fond listening perhaps provides an interesting contrastive point with the Moss poets’ father. A father who listens, in fact, is precisely the chief fantasy conveyed toward the end of the Early Efforts volume, in a lyric entitled “Father’s Lament.” Here the poetess has been killed off, for reasons we are not told, and the father laments the loss of his daughter by way of lamenting the loss of her poetry. In this poem, the father, like the father of “Frost at Midnight,” has heard “[t]he stillness of the evening hour” broken only by the sounds of his child. The silence now comes from the silencing of her voice forever. The lament of this father, then, focuses the daughter in the terms of her voice, and he processes his grief through the prism of his praise for, and regret at the loss of, her song.

The cloud of death thy brow hath shaded,
Thy cheek hath lost its healthful glow,
The luster of thine eye hath faded.
Thy joyous laugh is silenced now;
And never more shall song or smile
Of thine, this aching heart beguile.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Oft have I heard thy sweet voice break,
The stillness of the evening hour;
Oft have I heard thy lute awake
Soft echos with its thrilling power,
That voice of melody is mute,
And hush’d for ever is thy lute.

No voice shall e’er attempt to sing
The heavenly strains that thou hast sung;
No hand shall dare to touch a string
O’er which thine own hath once been flung
I’d rather rend thy lute in twain,
Than it should breathe of joy again.

The very breeze that murmurs by
Thy bow’r at eve, and wakes its strings,
This riven heart with agony,
That’s almost wrought to madness wrings,
I cannot, cannot bear to hear
Sounds that were once to me so dear.
(pp. 119-20)

The voice of this overheard poet is mute. The father is bereft of a voice. And it is voice which defines the highest authority for the Mosses ultimately, even through their highlighting of versions of themselves that conform to feminine norms. In this, we might be reminded of Psalm 29, which is central to the synagogue Torah service:

29:4 The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
29:5 The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars . . .

Early Efforts shifts dramatically in its mode of presenting its authors, but it is unwavering in its recognition of the importance of establishing a voice and of defining the audience that processes voice. However we read this instability, it is clear that they are performing various allegiances, some of them mutually contradictory, and performing various identities. In some ways, they are gesturing towards the cultural conditions by which their voice could only ever be unstable, could only ever be fraught with tensions that undermine its efforts at definitive self-definition.  Such poems as “To a Young Mother” establish their authority as women possessing the gift of sympathy, and as young women who know their place. Other poems present encomiums to England, queen of the waves and example to the nations. Here they reveal themselves to be fierce patriots, sharing in all the nationalist fervour of any true Englishman born and bred to pride in the land. Still others are dramatic monologues whose speakers are Jewish exiles mourning for map iconJerusalem. The boldest of the poems in this collection presents a narrative documentary of the infamous map iconYork Massacre, the terrible massacre by an angry Christian mob of the Jews of York in 1190. This is the only poem that contains explanatory, historical footnotes, lest any English countryman not realize fully the reality of the historical relation between Christians and Jews in England. The authority of the oppressed, of those who remain tenaciously strong through adversity, is herein thrown into relief. The collection is peppered also with instances of quiet protest, subtle self-assertion, and sometimes even strident affirmations of feminine identity that defy conventional stereotypes.

They wage war on the traditional notions of feminine beauty, insisting that strength of mind is paramount. In “The Fadeless Flower,” a lyric of quatrains that is suggestive of an English sonnet without the concluding couplet, they recall Shakespeare’s musings on beauty and mutability; however, what truly endures is not writing, but intellectual power:

The finest form will moulder in the dust;
The brightest eye will sink into decay;
The fairest brow will wither ‘neath death’s touch;
The sweetest flowers soonest fade away.

Why then, by man, should loveliness be deem’d
As the best gift bestow’d on woman-kind;
The brightest germ from whence her actions spring,
The noblest gem of woman, is her mind.

That mind that never yields beneath despair
That still shines forth in sorrow’s wasting hour;
That will resist the keenest sting of care,
This, this, in woman is a fadeless flower. (p. 78)

Spirit over flesh; mind over matter: the triumph of mind is the triumph of endurance and defiance. Shakespeare’s sonnets, of course, would resist mutability through the immortalizing capacities of verse. The beauty of the beloved is sustained through the mind’s creation of artifice: “Yet, do thy worst old Time, despite thy wrong, / My love shall in my verse ever live young” (“Sonnet 19” 13-14). Art, he insists, immortalizes beauty. The “gem” of the “mind,” the true “fadeless flower,” for the Mosses is neither Shakespeare’s enduring art nor Wordsworth’s sustenance in nature. The poem not only redefines the value of beauty and of women, it redefines the metaphoric significance of “flower.” The Moss sisters are herein not rejecting the pastoral so much as they would appropriate it to signify that which is entirely detached from pastoral. In this, they are decidedly Jewish in sensibility and defining their Romantic inheritance in terms consonant with that Jewish identity; that is, they recognize the subtleties of their alienation from the pastoral inheritance of English Romanticism even while mobilizing alternative strategies to access it. Wordsworth sings that the “mind of man becomes  / A thousand times more beautiful than the earth / on which he dwells.” (The Prelude 13.446-48). For Wordsworth in “Tintern Abbey,” the mature mind has gained sufficient critical distance from the all-consuming love of nature to be able to feel, finally, “A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts” (94-5): nature converts itself into a giver of that which is beyond the tactile. For the Mosses, the permanence of intellectual and spiritual beauty, the “fadeless flower,” dissolves the image of visual spectacle altogether. The iconic sign by which pastoral is conventionally valorized—the flower—is converted to an assertion that pastoral commonplaces can be transcended. What is a human being? Dust. What is a woman? She who can determine her will. The abstraction of mind endures, and it need not be converted into artifice. It does not bow to despair or sorrow or the sting of care. It “never yields,” it “resists.” In woman the fadeless flower is the stuff of revolution.

It should therefore come as no surprise that they position a song of Jewish protest as belonging to a girl. “The Jewish Girl’s Song” is an apostrophe to Judea, lamenting the destruction of the temple. A twenty-line poem, its concluding eight lines reveal all of the glories of the “fadeless flower” as the speaker muses on the reversal of the enemy’s fortunes:

But weep not, thy day-star again shall arise!
Again shall thy children be rank’d with the free,
While map iconRome is a thing which all nations despise,
The proud city itself is a ruin like thee!
She laugh’d at thy fall, thy destruction enjoyed,
But she who destroyed thee herself is destroyed,
Her shrines too are fallen, and trampled her fanes,
And nought but the shade of her glory remains.  (p. 83)

There are many laments for Jerusalem and for exile throughout the volume. Some poems assume the voice of an unidentified woman lamenting the loss of a love in battle, while others narrate a tale of war and captivity in unspecified lands by indeterminate people. Exile and loss, then, are motifs throughout the poetry, and they are intermittently narrowed to describe exile and loss suffered by the Jews. “The Jewish Girl’s Song” is remarkable for its title, as nothing else in the poem itself would suggest that the lyric is uttered by a girl. And since the collection in which the poem appears is written by Jewish girls, the significance is self-referential in ways that acknowledge both the strengths and limitations of the authors’ self-fashioning. This is a poetry of exile that resists the elegiac. It is a poetry that resonates with the multi-faceted self-positioning of the Moss sisters: Rome is not to be equated with England, but neither are the Moss sisters free to ignore their complicated inheritance, one which recognizes their affiliation with a history of exile as much as their subtle negotiations of the subtler forms of alienation within their contemporary England. The poem’s speaker does not call down vengeance upon Rome; she merely observes the justice of its ironic reversal, that “she who destroyed thee herself is destroyed.” Who is this Jewish girl voicing the song of tenacity and vengeance? Strong of mind, unyielding to the despair of exile, this is a girl whose triumph over pain is the indulgence in schadenfreude. Is this really the fadeless flower? Strong and defiant, she describes her people as unbroken:

The wild deer in freedom bounds over thy plain,
But thy once happy people in exile remain;
Yet their hearts still yearn to thee, their spirits unbroke,
Tho’ forced to submit to the Edomite’s yoke.

Still in exile, still yearning to be free, and finally triumphant in angry vengeful pride, this is truly the song of a Jewish girl whose strength of mind has found no other outlet. If she recognizes herself in the mirror of her enemy’s face, then she does not assume the blame. “Her shrines too are fallen, and trampled her fanes,” she exults, but her people, though unbroken in their devotion to Judea, are still in exile.

The voice of exile is a voice all the same. It is the voice of the fadeless flower no less than the voice of the father finally recognizing the value and the authority of the daughter’s voice. It is the voice that joins itself to several proud histories in which voice is the ground that defines one’s cultural authority as well as one’s cultural belonging. And it is this question of specifically cultural belonging that defines the Moss sisters’ apprehension of the conditions of England in which they labour in lyric. Their poetry cannot rest on confidence in the consensual understanding of the meaning of landscape, or of literary inheritance, or of quotidian ease of being. As such, their voice is not registered within the public recognition of what constitutes the condition of England. Still, it is a voice tenacious in its insistence that the effort is early, that it may yet project itself into a horizon that recognizes its being.

published June 2013

Karen Weisman is Associate Professor of English at the University of Toronto, where she is also a member of the Centre for Jewish Studies.  She is the author of Imageless Truths: Shelley’s Poetic Fictions (1994); editor of The Oxford Handbook of the Elegy (2010); and the author of numerous articles and chapters on Romantic, post-Romantic and Jewish culture.  She is currently completing a book on Anglo-Jewish Romantic poetry.


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