Venus of the Louvre by Emma Lazarus

‘Venus of the Louvre’ by Emma Lazarus is an Elizabethan or Shakespearean sonnet. This means that it follows a rhyming pattern of ababcdcdefefgg. These sonnets always end with a rhyming couplet that often summarizes the previous lines or makes an especially impactful statement in regards to the rest of the text. Additionally, a reader should take note of how this piece is structured in iambic pentameter. This means that each line is made up of five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. 

 

Format    

Sonnets in general, but especially those of the Elizabethan variety are often marked by their separation into two quatrains and one concluding sestet. That is, two sets of four lines and one of six. Between these two sections a “turn” often occurs. This is sometimes shift in perspective or an analysis of past events.

 In the case of ‘Venus of the Louvre,’ Lazarus has made all three sections distinct from one another. The first gives a general overview of what it is like to come upon the Venus de Milo in the Louvre Museum. In the second quatrain she speaks from her own perspective. This piece was composed towards the end of Lazarus’ life. She had toured throughout Europe, spending time in Italy and France. The final sestet takes the poem from one dedicated to historically important art, to one that is speaking on the struggles of the Jewish people throughout time. 

 

Historical Context

Before reading this piece it is important to take note of Lazarus’ relationship to the Jewish community. This is seen most prominently within the concluding sestet of the poem. In these lines she speaks of Heinrich Heine, a German writer and poet who died when Lazarus was only seven years old. His works were burnt prolifically by the Nazi regime and outlawed throughout Germany. These facts only increased his notoriety and his death was likely a blow to the Lazarus family whose home was a centre for literary discussions between writers. Heine was of particular importance to Lazarus. She learned German at a young age and his works were some of the first that she translated. 

 

Summary of Venus of the Louvre 

‘Venus of the Louvre’ by Emma Lazarus describes the sights seen and emotions experienced by a narrator who is visiting the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. 

The poem begins with the speaker giving an overview of what it’s like to see the Venus de Milo. She has a light of her own that “glistens like a star.” The statue is positioned at the end of a hall where “Time’s brutal hand” can not “mar” her.  In the next section the poem switches to a first person narration in which the speaker describes what happened when she saw the statue. Her experiences were a little different. She saw in her mind the image of Heinrich Heine, the long deceased German poet, kneeling and weeping at the Versus’ feet. 

He represents the general mourning of the Jewish people over “Hebraic pain.” The speaker starts that he is always going to be there until no heart mourns. 

 

Analysis of Venus of the Louvre 

Lines 1-4

Down the long hall she glistens like a star, 

The foam-born mother of Love, transfixed to stone, 

Yet none the less immortal, breathing on. 

Time’s brutal hand hath maimed but could not mar. 

The poem begins as a relatively straight forward meditation on the power and beauty of the Venus de Milo statue in the Louvre Gallery in Paris, France. The speaker describes what it is like to come upon her form and confront the “long hall” she is placed at the end of. Although there is an initial distance between an onlooker and the statue, the space if closed by the way she “glistens.” The statue gives off a light that is star-like, as if she has a power all her own. 

The speaker continues on to describe the Venus as being the “foam-born mother of Love.” As told through Roman mythology, Venus was born from the foam of the sea. This was made possible after Saturn castrated his father, Uranus. It was from his blood that she was born. The beauty of the legendary Venus has been transformed from a living, breathing woman into the “stone” statue. Despite her form, she is still as “immortal” as she was before. She “breath[es] on” even though she’s made of stone. This speaks to the draw the statue has and how one cannot help but feel the power of the woman it depicts. 

In the last line of the first quatrain the speaker tells of how “Time’s brutal hand” could not “mar” her. There has been damage to the statue over time, but never enough to decrease her beauty by any measurable level. Again, the speaker is hoping to convey to a reader the wonder one experiences upon viewing this statue. 

 

Lines 5-8 

When first the enthralled enchantress from afar 

Dazzled mine eyes, I saw not her alone, 

Serenely poised on her world-worshipped throne, 

As when she guided once her dove-drawn car,— 

In the next set of four lines the speaker turns to her own subjective experience. She is now placed at the end of the hallway referenced in the first line of the poem. It is her turn to tell of how she personally felt when she saw the Venus de Milo. Considering that this poem was written by Lazarus after a trip to France, it is likely that she envisioned herself as the speaker. These lines probably mirror her own experience. While the speaker is living the experience described in the first set of lines, her view includes additional details which change the direction of the poem. 

The Venus is not alone at the end of the hall in the Louvre. There is another at her feet. The man, who is later revealed to be the German poet Heinrich Heine changes the scene. In the last two lines the speaker states that she does not see the Venus as one might usually. The emphasis is not on her “Serene” pose. The speaker is not taken in by the image of her guiding her “dove-drawn car,” or chariot. Her individual power is less important due to the presence of Heine. 

 

Lines 9-14 

But at her feet a pale, death-stricken Jew, 

Her life adorer, sobbed farewell to love. 

Here Heine wept! Here still he weeps anew, 

Nor ever shall his shadow lift or move, 

While mourns one ardent heart, one poet-brain, 

For vanished Hellas and Hebraic pain.

Before making clear that the man she sees is Heinrich Heine, the speaker takes the time to describe him in passionate detail. He is “pale, death-stricken” and a “Jew.” These three characteristics come one after another as if they are inseparable. When one considers the history of Heine, the treatment of his writings before and long after his death, these first statements are not surprising. The speaker is making a larger statement though. The text is not focusing on Heine himself but on the entirety of “Hebraic pain.” 

The poet is on his knees at her feet and sobbing “farewell to love.” It is not until the third line she reveals that the man is ”Heine.” He is distraught, deeply moved by his adoration for the Venus and what she symbolizes. 

It is important to note that it is an impossibility that Lazarus actually saw the poet Heine in the museum. As stated above, he died when Lazarus was only seven years old. She has crafted this image in an effort to take a statement about Jewish heritage and pain. His presence in the scene is permanent. He has been there since his life and death and will be there long after. He will always “weep…anew.” And never will there be a time that his “shadow” moves. The poet will be there until there are no longer any hearts that mourn either “Hellas [or] Hebraic pain.” 

In these final lines the speaker is directly referencing Jewish communities and using Heine as an example of their struggle. His weeping will continue until the hearts stop “mourn[ing].” 

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