Singing in a Foreign Land

Anglo-Jewish Poetry, 1812–1847

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Karen A. Weisman
Jewish Culture and Contexts
  • University Park, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , July
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Karen Weisman’s Singing in a Foreign Land: Anglo-Jewish Poetry, 1812–1847 provides an elegant and convincing account of the ways that Anglo-Jewish authors negotiated their identity as “foreigners” in Britain during the early 19th century. She focuses on five authors—Emma Lyon, Hyman Hurwitz, Cecilia and Marion Moss, and Grace Aguilar—who inherited the self-reflexivity of British Romantic literature and yet reflected the profound displacement that English Jews felt during these years. Led by the example of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, British Romantic poets had often emphasized individual subjectivity and national identity through meditative verses on the landscape. Weisman persuasively demonstrates that Anglo-Jewish authors between 1812 and 1847 relied on this same literary legacy through “ironic reversals” that uniquely complicate the tradition through invocations of longing and resistance: “the very poetry that nurtures them and by which they instantiate their subjectivity—is also a site in which they recognize their distance from its promises” (3).

The British Romantic period was a time of revolution and reform, when the abolition of the slave trade, perpetual military conflict, and violent social unrest shaped the course of literature. Religious change featured prominently. Protestant dissenters from all quarters used the burgeoning print industry to chip away at the ascendency of the Church of England, Unitarians saw their political rights expand through new forms of toleration, and even Roman Catholics achieved political emancipation after decades of parliamentary debate. The status of English Jews was far less secure.

The wholesale expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 often diminished Jewish representation in British literature to derisive caricatures—think Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In time, Jewish communities gradually reemerged through immigration from Spain, Portugal, and other parts of Europe. By some estimates, there were twelve thousand to fifteen thousand Jews living in and around London during the early 19th century. However, while the 1829 Roman Catholic Relief Act brought political recognition in a demonstration of national reform, another three decades passed before English Jews secured legal emancipation. Weisman’s study enriches our understanding of this period through a critical analysis of five Anglo-Jewish writers.

Lyon wrote poetry that self-consciously investigates the lyric form in new translations of the Psalms. The daughter of a Hebrew teacher, Lyon asserts textual authority over the biblical text that Protestants across the nation claimed the right to regulate. Lyon’s rendering of Psalm 19, which was best known to English readers in Joseph Addison’s paraphrase (“The Spacious Firmament on High”), reflects the self-assertion of an English poet singularly intimate with biblical Hebrew. Thus, in making free translations from the Hebrew Bible using the lyric form, Lyon sets herself up as an authoritative poetess at once within and above the English Protestant literary tradition.

Similarly, Hurwitz, who had immigrated to England from Poland during the 1770s, commemorated the deaths of members of the British monarchy in Hebrew poetry that illustrates the complicated public standing of Jews in England. Hurwitz was the first professor of Hebrew at University College, London, and a close friend of Coleridge. In 1817 he composed a Hebrew dirge commemorating the death of Princess Charlotte: chanted in the Great Synagogue in London, the poem was subsequently printed with an English translation opposite the text under the title “Israel’s Lament.” Weisman reveals multiple layers of meaning in her close literary analysis. Elements of biblical symbolism in Hurwitz’s original are silently dropped from the English translation but always with Hurwitz’s tacit approval, conveying concern for Jewish identity (through Hurwitz’s Hebrew) alongside universal themes touching the nation as a whole (through Coleridge’s English adaptation). Later, Hurwitz wrote an elegy following the death of George III (which Coleridge again translated for the public). In that poem, Weisman contends, the elusive features of Jewish and national identity again come to the fore: “[the poem] marks the passing of the monarch of the land in which the poet lives, and it asserts the Jew’s rightful belonging and rightful inheritance of English nationalist aspirations as a Jew” (88).

Later, Weisman’s analysis of the poetry of Aguilar takes up themes and figures characteristic of the British Romantic movement (for example, nature, the pastoral, and the influence of Wordsworth), but her chapter on the Moss sisters stands out as one of the most illuminating. The poetic compositions of Celia and Marion Moss display precisely the paradoxical tensions that Weisman traces throughout the book, and her reading of poems such as “The Massacre of the Jews at York: A Historical Poem” is highly instructive. Through such works, the Moss sisters recall a history of Jewish displacement, alienation, and estrangement in the land, while simultaneously linking their poetics to predecessors such as John Milton and Lord Byron. The poem reimagines the York Massacre—in which a group of English Jews chose mass suicide in 1190, rather than their forced conversion at the hands of an angry mob—relying on shrewd references to authoritative Anglican scholarship and, simultaneously, effecting an audacious act of self-representation as foreigners in the land.

While Weisman does not connect Jewish literary strategies to Muslims during the period (against the claim that “only the Jews” faced civil disabilities by midcentury), her work could prove helpful for understanding questions of identity that other outsiders in Britain may have faced during this period of rapid religious change. Scholars of the Bible and religion alike will discover that Weisman’s book could be used effectively in the classroom. Her analysis of Lyon’s poetic renderings of the Psalms (including Psalms 19, 49, 50, 58, and 72), for instance, moves effortlessly between the Hebrew text, various English translations, and Lyon’s own lyrics, revealing multiple layers of biblical reception in 19th-century England. Indeed, throughout the text, Weisman helpfully draws attention to sources of Jewish ritual life (such as liturgical acts of confession) in reading Anglo-Jewish poetics. Finally, since women comprise four of the five subjects of this study, this illuminating book also contributes to the ongoing retrieval of overlooked women writers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeffrey W. Barbeau is professor of theology at Wheaton College.

Date of Review: 
March 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Karen A. Weisman teaches in the English Department of the University of Toronto.


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