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Emma Lazarus and "The New Colossus"

Updated on October 8, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Emma Lazarus


Brief Biography of Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus championed her religious heritage as an American Jew, and her poem, "The New Colossus," became a symbol for great opportunities of freedom.

Born in New York on July 22, 1849, to Jewish parents, Esther Nathan and Moses Lazarus, Emma Lazarus was the fourth of seven children. Her talent for translating and writing became evident in her teens as she translated the works of Heinrich Heine.

Between 1866 and 1882, she published Poems and Translations: Written between the Ages of Fourteen and Sixteen (1866), Admetus and Other Poems (1871), Alide: An Episode of Goethe's Life ( 1874), The Spagnoletto (1876), “The Eleventh Hour” (1878) , a dramatic verse tragedy, and Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death and Other Poems (1882).

Until this time, she had felt somewhat outside of her heritage, but in the early 1880s, after learning about the Russian pogroms against Jews, she began to work with the Hebrew Emigrant Aid-Society, where she met many Eastern European immigrants.

This work gave her a renewed interest and commitment to Judaism. Her dedication to her religion and heritage remained an important influence in her life and writing. This influence on heritage led to her patriotic act of composing the important poem that helped secure funds to build the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.

The Sculpture on a Pedestal

The Statue of Liberty was sculpted by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who was commissioned to design the statue for the 1876 centennial celebration of American Independence. The statue was a gift from France to recognize the bond of friendship that had developed during the years that America was establishing its independence from Britain.

However, the French were responsible only for the sculpture itself, not the pedestal upon which it had to rest. The statue cost close to a half-million dollars, which the French paid, but the United States had secure a little over a quarter- million to pay for the pedestal. In 1883, Emma Lazarus, therefore, composed the sonnet to help raise the funds to furnish the sculpture with a pedestal.

Commentary: "The New Colossus

The sonnet is an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet with an octave and sestet and a rime scheme of ABBAABBA CDCDCD. In the octave, the speaker of the poem contrasts this new statue with the Colossus of Rhodes: instead of a "brazen giant of Greek fame / With conquering limbs," this new colossus is "A mighty woman with torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name / Mother of Exiles." Instead of a conqueror, this "Mother of Exiles" is a nurturer" with "mild eye."

In the sestet, the "Mother of Exiles" speaks, "with silent lips": "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Like a silent, loving mother, the statue opens her arms to the outcasts of the world, and she lifts her light to offer guidance as they take their steps toward their new home.

Belovedly, Emma Lazarus will always be remembered for her sonnet, "The New Colossus." The sonnet was engraved on a plaque, which was then appended to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903, sixteen years after the death of the poet.

Reading of Lazarus' "The New Colossus"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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