Poems by Théophile Gautier and Emma Lazarus About the Beauty of the Alhambra

Poems by Théophile Gautier and Emma Lazarus About the Beauty of the Alhambra

Thursday, 9 February, 2023

The Alhambra is a jewel of Moorish architecture that stands almost defiantly against the jagged peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains in northeastern Spain. Imposing walls surround the complex, but inside are beautiful palaces, sun-dappled courtyards, and cool green gardens. There are graceful pointed arches, lacy windows, colorful tile mosaics, and soaring domes — just the place to sit in quiet contemplation.

The Moors crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain in 711. They brought flamenco music and chess; olives, apricots, and dates; and Islam. But in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Moors from Spain.

Muhammad XII, known as Boabdil, was the last Moorish Sultan of Granada. As the story goes, when he left Spain through the Sierra Nevada mountains, he looked back at the Alhambra and sighed with - longing for the beauty he was leaving behind. The Alhambra and that particular spot in the Alpujarras Pass have inspired artists, writers, and poets for centuries.

It’s now called the Pass of the Moor’s Sigh (Puerto del Suspiro del Moro in Spanish) and is marked with a weather-beaten stone marker — so you, too, can climb into the mountains and look back with a sigh.


Théophile Gautier: Poet, Travel Writer, Romantic

Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) was a French writer, poet, and literary critic. He worked as a journalist to pay the bills, but between those assignments, he traveled the world and wrote about his experiences. His adventures took him all over Europe — England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Greece — as far east as Russia and south to Turkey, Algiers, and Egypt.

His many trips to Spain resulted in his 1853 book Wanderings in Spain. Its pages are rich with his personal observations, historical context, and charming 19th-century illustrations. In a passage about visiting the Alhambra, he wrote:

On coming from these obscure passages into this large space inundated with light, you feel an effect similar to that produced by a diorama. It appears to you that an enchanter’s wand has carried you to the East of four or five centuries back. Time, which changes all things in its progress, has in no way modified the aspect of these places, where the apparition of one of the old Moorish sultans… would not cause the least surprise.

You can read Wanderings in Spain on Project Gutenberg and Google Books. (Definitely at least treat yourself to a flip through the pages to enjoy the illustrations.)

Guatier’s poem The Last Sigh of the Moor imagines the dramatic moment when Boabdil said his final adiós to Granada.


The Last Sigh of the Moor — Théophile Gautier (C.F. Bates, translator)

  • The Cavalier who hastes the height to gain
  • Pale and with trembling knees,
  • Is Boabdil, king of the Moors of Spain,
  • Who could have died, yet flees.
  • To Spaniards now Granada is restored,
  • Crescent doth yield to cross,
  • By Boabdil, with tears not blood deplored,
  • Is his dear city’s loss.
  • Upon a rock, Sigh of the Moor, they call,
  • Boabdil sat, and cast
  • On far Granada and Alhambra’s wall
  • A long look and the last.

  • “There I was caliph yesterday,
  • Lived like a very god below;
  • The Generalife wooed my stay,
  • And then the Alhambra’s blazing glow.
  • Clear, floating baths were mine, and there
  • Sultanas, my three hundred fair,
  • Bathed, all secure from impious stare.
  • My name on all the world cast fear.
  • Alas! my power is now brought low,
  • My valiant army flies the foe,
  • With none to follow me I go
  • Save my own shadow, ever near.
  • Dissolve, dissolve in tears, my eyes!
  • Up from my armor heave the steel,
  • Ye deep heart-sighs that now arise!
  • He conquers to whom Christians kneel!
  • I go; adieu, fair sky of Spain,
  • Darro, Jénil, the verdant plain,
  • The snowy peaks with rosy stain;
  • Farewell, Granada! loves, adieu!
  • Sunny Alhambra, vermeil towers,
  • Fresh gardens filled with wondrous flowers,
  • In vigils and in dreaming hours,
  • Absent, I still shall look on you!’
<img src='/images/posts/spain/alhambra.png' alt="" 19th-century="" illustration="" of="" the="" alhambra="" from="" book="" wanderings="" in="" spain="" by="" théophile="" gautier="" class="img-fluid" >
Illustration from the book 'Wanderings in Spain.'


Emma Lazarus: Poet, Activist, Translator

Emma Lazarus (1849 – 1887) was an American author and activist. She was born into a Sephardic Jewish family in Brooklyn, and wrote her first poems when she was eleven. In her later life, she became an activist for Jewish causes and economic reforms. All of which contributed to her most famous poem The New Colossus, the sonnet she wrote in 1883 to raise money for the construction of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. Lines from that work are engraved on a bronze plaque on Lady Liberty’s pedestal.

Like Théophile Gautier, Emma Lazarus traveled to Europe twice in the late 1800s to raise money for Jewish aid organizations. Although she didn’t visit Spain on those trips, she was moved by the story of the expulsion of Jewish people from Spain. (Ferdinand and Isabella were very busy with dastardly schemes in 1492.) Maybe that’s what inspired this poem about the gardens of the Alhambra.

Dating from the 16th century, the Lindaraxa gardens feature fountains and pools, roses and bougainvillea, and the fragrance of orange trees and herbs.


Arabesque — Emma Lazarus

  • On a background of pale gold
  • I would trace with quaint design,
  • Penciled fine,
  • Brilliant-colored, Moorish scenes,
  • Mosques and crescents, pages, queens,
  • Line on line,
  • That the prose-world of to-day
  • Might the gorgeous Past’s array
  • Once behold.

  • On the magic painted shield
  • Rich Granada’s Vega green
  • Should be seen;
  • Crystal fountains, coolness flinging,
  • Hanging gardens’ skyward springing
  • Emerald sheen;
  • Ruddy when the daylight falls,
  • Crowned Alhambra’s beetling walls
  • Stand revealed;

  • Balconies that overbrow
  • Field and city, vale and stream.
  • In a dream
  • Lulled the drowsy landscape basks;
  • Mark the gleam
  • Silvery of each white-swathed peak!
  • Mountain-airs caress the cheek,
  • Fresh from the snow.

  • Here in Lindaraxa’s bower
  • The immortal roses bloom;
  • In the room
  • Lion-guarded, marble-paven,
  • Still the fountain leaps to heaven.
  • But the doom
  • Of the banned and stricken race
  • Overshadows every place,
  • Every hour.

  • Where fair Lindaraxa dwelt
  • Flits the bat on velvet wings;
  • Mute the strings
  • Of the broken mandoline;
  • The Pavilion of the Queen
  • Widely flings
  • Vacant windows to the night;
  • Moonbeams kiss the floor with light
  • Where she knelt.

  • Through these halls that people stepped
  • Who through darkling centuries
  • Held the keys
  • Of all wisdom, truth, and art,
  • In a Paradise apart,
  • Lapped in ease,
  • Sagely pondering deathless themes,
  • While, befooled with monkish dreams,
  • Europe slept.

  • Where shall they be found today?
  • Yonder hill that frets the sky
  • ‘The Last Sigh
  • Of the Moor’ is named still.
  • There the ill-starred Boabdil
  • Bade good-by
  • To Granada and to Spain,
  • Where the Crescent ne’er again
  • Holdeth sway.

  • Vanished like the wind that blows,
  • Whither shall we seek their trace
  • On earth’s face?
  • The gigantic wheel of fate,
  • Crushing all things soon or late,
  • Now a race,
  • Now a single life o’erruns,
  • Now a universe of suns,
  • Now a rose.

Top image courtesy of Vidar Nordli-Mathisen/Shutterstock.

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