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The City of Light, a poem by Felix Adler (1882)

https://opensiddur.org/?p=45323 The City of Light, a poem by Felix Adler (1882) 2022-06-26 21:20:28 "The City of Light" is a poem written by Felix Adler. The earliest publication I could find for it dates to 1882, in <em>Unity: Freedom, Fellowship and Character in Religion</em> vol. 8, no. 12 (16 Feb. 1882), p. 477. Text the Open Siddur Project Aharon N. Varady (transcription) Aharon N. Varady (transcription) Felix Adler https://opensiddur.org/copyright-policy/ Aharon N. Varady (transcription) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/ Dying Tishah b'Av International Workers' Day (May 1st) US Labor Day (1st Monday in September) mortality Siege of Paris (1870–1871) Paris Commune we are the music makers 19th century C.E. משיח Moshiaḥ Ethical Humanism ירושלם Jerusalem universalist 57th century A.M. English poetry Prayers as poems
A century before Starship’s pop anthem “We Built this City” (1984), a hymn by Felix Adler — “City of Light” — had become a hit among the Sunday Religious School choir set. The popular hymn was based on a poem published in 1882 and spread by radicals, both religious and secular. In its first incarnation as a hymn, it was reduced from fifteen to six stanzas. By some further clever elisions, the radical nature of the poem was erased and the hymn made palatable for mainstream audiences keen on singing about a heavenly Jerusalem made manifest through legislating their moral virtues on earth. A strong hint as to Adler’s actual intention in the poem can be found in its reference to the poignant conclusion to a history of the Renaissance penned by the art historian Walter Pater. In 1873, two years after the siege of the Paris Commune, Pater wrote, “we are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les hommes sont tous condamnés à mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among ‘the children of this world,’ in art and song…” Here is the original text of Adler’s universalist paean to those laboring and bleeding to build a city — a metaphor for a future we help to build (or demolish) but ultimately can only ever imagine before our lives as its builders pass away to the next generation. (For a comparative composition, find Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Ode [a/k/a “We are the music makers,” 1873].)

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The City of Light
Have you heard of the Golden City
Mentioned in the legends old?[1] In the 19th century, the “Golden City” was a romantic trope with strong religious overtones. The more immediate revolutionary antecedent to Adler’s “City of Light” is William Blake’s “Jerusalem” (1808), where the imperative for actively building a new “Jerusalem” in Britain is complemented by the need to tear down its “Satanic Mills.” Adler’s reference here to the Golden City as the “City of Light” invokes a prophetic and messianic concept of a future Jerusalem described in Ezekiel 40:1–48:35, Zechariah 2:5-17, Isaiah 54:11-14. (In the context of Adler’s then nascent universalist Ethical Culture movement, I think he is very much inspired by the vision of the future Temple as a “house of prayer for all people” in Isaiah 56:7.) For Christians, the term “Golden City” would also have evoked notions of a Heavenly City — for those who have died and gone to live in Heaven, as it were. Adler’s poem first describes the Golden City in this Christological sense of a utopian municipality for the dead, but then shifts in favor of a Jewish vision of a messianic age for the living. That is the revolutionary and radical valence of the poem, one which would also have appealed to those “materialist” Jews and Gentiles who rejected notions of an afterlife of any kind, heavenly or hellish. The meaning of mortal life was held in perseverance towards the cause of realizing a better world on Earth, if not in this lifetime, then in the lifetimes of future generations of humankind. The exact vision of this future world is left undescribed, but others in the period that Adler was writing were beginning to imagine and describe it, the most well-known of which is Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). A comparative of this genre today would be Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism (2019).

It’s worth stating here that the modern city of Jerusalem is one of a number of terrestrial cities sometimes referred to as either a “city of gold” or a “golden city. The contemporary reference for Jerusalem is actually to a style of ancient and antique tiara known as a “city of gold” — a headpiece fashioned in the outline of a city’s walls and cityscape. (For the Jewish context of this jewelry in rabbinic literature, find the story of Rabbi Akiva and his wife Raḥel.) Alternately, in ancient Greek geography there was Χρυσόπολις (Chrysopolis, meaning Golden City), a prosperous settlement on the Anatolian shore of the Bosphorus. Also find Sonipat, Kolar, Koduvally, Kanchipuram, Jaisalmer, and Amritsar in India, or Prague and Vicenza in Europe, or the legendary seven cities of gold in the Americas sought after for plunder by the Spanish. A contemporary fictional reference can be found in Birnin Zana, the capital of Wakanda in the Marvel Universe, also called “the Golden City.” 
 
Everlasting light shines o’er it,
Wondrous tales of it are told.
Only righteous men and women
Dwell within its gleaming wall;
Wrong is banished from its borders,[2] Repeated twice in the hymn. 
Justice reigns supreme o’er all.
Do you ask: where is that city
Where the perfect right doth reign?
I must answer, I must tell you
That you seek its site in vain.
You may roam o’er hill and valley,
You may pass o’er land and sea,
You may search the wide earth over—
’Tis a city yet to be.
We are builders of that city;
All our joys and all our groans
Help to rear its shining ramparts;
All our lives are building-stones.
Some can do but humblest service—
Hew rough stones, or break the soil;
While the few alone may gather
Joy and honor from their toil:
While the few may plan the arches,
And the fluted columns fair,
And immortal thought embody,
And immortal beauty there.
But, if humble or exalted,
All are called to task divine,
All but aid alike to carry
Forward one sublime design.
What that plan may be we know not;
How the seat of justice high,
How the city of our vision
Will appear to mortal eye—
That no mortal eye can picture,
That no mortal tongue can tell,
We can barely dream the glories
Of the future’s citadel.
But for it we still must labor,[3] Cf. The statement of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot 2:16. 
For its sake bear pain and grief,
In it find the end of living
And the anchor of belief.
But a few brief years we labor;
Soon our earthly day is o’er,
Other builders take our places
And “our place knows us no more.”[4] From Walter Pater’s “Conclusion” to The Renaissance (1873). “One of the most beautiful passages in the writings of Rousseau is that in the sixth book of the Confessions, where he describes the awakening in him of the literary sense. An undefinable taint of death had always clung about him, and now in early manhood he believed himself smitten by mortal disease. He asked himself how he might make as much as possible of the interval that remained; and he was not biassed by anything in his previous life when he decided that it must be by intellectual excitement, which he found just then in the clear, fresh writings of Voltaire. Well! we are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les hommes sont tous condamnés à mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” 
But the work that we have builded,
Oft with bleeding hands and tears,
And in error and in anguish,[5] Repeated twice in the hymn. 
Will not perish with our years.
It will be at last made perfect
In the universal plan;
It will help to crown the labors
Of the toiling hosts of man.
It will last and shine transfigured
In the final reign of right;
It will merge into the splendors
Of the city of the light.

“The City of Light” is a poem written by Felix Adler. The earliest publication I could find for it dates to 1882, in Unity: Freedom, Fellowship and Character in Religion vol. 8, no. 12 (16 Feb. 1882), p. 477. The poem also appears in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (March 18, 1882, p. 11) and later that year in The Shaker Manifesto vol. 12, no. 11 (Nov. 1882), pp. 247-248. In the following year it was reprinted in The Radical Review vol. 10, no. 16 (Dec. 1883). This search was not comprehensive; it was likely printed elsewhere.

In the following decades, abbreviated, adapted versions of the poem were included in anthologies of hymns. The first of these I have found was published in The Ethical Record (April 1888) under the title, “City of the Light” (Have you heard of the golden city) containing six of the fifteen stanzas in the poem. This abbreviated version was possibly arranged by Adler himself. (Later versions of the hymn can be found published under other titles: “The City of our Dreams,” and “City of Our Hopes,” or according to its variant incipits: “Sing we of the golden city,” and “Hail the glorious golden city.”) By 1896, “City of the Light” was being sung by choirs in reform synagogues (and churches). In Menorah that year (vol. 20, no. 2, p. 95), the reform rabbi Kaufmann Kohler (1843-1926) is quoted remarking on the significance of the work in his understanding,

Here is the issue between Orthodoxy and Reform, between Christian and Jew. The Christian hopes for the heavenly Jerusalem, which is reached only through the gate of the tomb. The Jew hopes for Jerusalem as the ideal city of righteousness, as the goal of humanity. Only the Orthodox must see it rebuilt in Palestine. The Reform Jew does not look backward, but forward, for the realization of his hope. He beholds in it a grand lofty ideal of human history. Our Sunday-school children sing the beautiful song “The Golden City” in our Sabbath-school Hymnal, the text of which is composed by Felix Adler, but the spirit is thoroughly Jewish. It is the Reform view of Jerusalem of the future, universal and cosmopolitan. With this principle in view, the vision of Jerusalem before the mind, Reform Judaism started in America to build Judaism on a broader and loftier basis, hoping to see this land of liberty and humanity become the Holy Land of Promise for Israel, for mankind. And the Order B’ne B’rith was a leading body to adopt and to propagate these very ideas and principles.

In a lecture on Atheism given at the Society for Ethical Culture 6 April 1879, Adler uses the term “the Golden City” in the context of imaginary human inventions. There he writes, “the fact that we have a complete conception of these places does not at all prove that they exist” (as part of his discrediting an argument for the existence of God via Kant’s philosophy.) It makes sense to me that “City of Light” was composed around that time, when that phrase was percolating in his lectures. If you know of an earlier reference, please leave a comment or contact us. –Aharon Varady

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Notes

Notes
1In the 19th century, the “Golden City” was a romantic trope with strong religious overtones. The more immediate revolutionary antecedent to Adler’s “City of Light” is William Blake’s “Jerusalem” (1808), where the imperative for actively building a new “Jerusalem” in Britain is complemented by the need to tear down its “Satanic Mills.” Adler’s reference here to the Golden City as the “City of Light” invokes a prophetic and messianic concept of a future Jerusalem described in Ezekiel 40:1–48:35, Zechariah 2:5-17, Isaiah 54:11-14. (In the context of Adler’s then nascent universalist Ethical Culture movement, I think he is very much inspired by the vision of the future Temple as a “house of prayer for all people” in Isaiah 56:7.) For Christians, the term “Golden City” would also have evoked notions of a Heavenly City — for those who have died and gone to live in Heaven, as it were. Adler’s poem first describes the Golden City in this Christological sense of a utopian municipality for the dead, but then shifts in favor of a Jewish vision of a messianic age for the living. That is the revolutionary and radical valence of the poem, one which would also have appealed to those “materialist” Jews and Gentiles who rejected notions of an afterlife of any kind, heavenly or hellish. The meaning of mortal life was held in perseverance towards the cause of realizing a better world on Earth, if not in this lifetime, then in the lifetimes of future generations of humankind. The exact vision of this future world is left undescribed, but others in the period that Adler was writing were beginning to imagine and describe it, the most well-known of which is Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). A comparative of this genre today would be Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism (2019).

It’s worth stating here that the modern city of Jerusalem is one of a number of terrestrial cities sometimes referred to as either a “city of gold” or a “golden city. The contemporary reference for Jerusalem is actually to a style of ancient and antique tiara known as a “city of gold” — a headpiece fashioned in the outline of a city’s walls and cityscape. (For the Jewish context of this jewelry in rabbinic literature, find the story of Rabbi Akiva and his wife Raḥel.) Alternately, in ancient Greek geography there was Χρυσόπολις (Chrysopolis, meaning Golden City), a prosperous settlement on the Anatolian shore of the Bosphorus. Also find Sonipat, Kolar, Koduvally, Kanchipuram, Jaisalmer, and Amritsar in India, or Prague and Vicenza in Europe, or the legendary seven cities of gold in the Americas sought after for plunder by the Spanish. A contemporary fictional reference can be found in Birnin Zana, the capital of Wakanda in the Marvel Universe, also called “the Golden City.”

2Repeated twice in the hymn.
3Cf. The statement of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot 2:16.
4From Walter Pater’s “Conclusion” to The Renaissance (1873). “One of the most beautiful passages in the writings of Rousseau is that in the sixth book of the Confessions, where he describes the awakening in him of the literary sense. An undefinable taint of death had always clung about him, and now in early manhood he believed himself smitten by mortal disease. He asked himself how he might make as much as possible of the interval that remained; and he was not biassed by anything in his previous life when he decided that it must be by intellectual excitement, which he found just then in the clear, fresh writings of Voltaire. Well! we are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les hommes sont tous condamnés à mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.”
5Repeated twice in the hymn.
 

 

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