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Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus"

Updated on June 14, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Source

Introduction and Text of "The New Colossus"

Emma Lazarus' sonnet, "The New Colossus," is an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet with an octave and sestet and the traditional rime scheme of ABBAABBA CDCDCD. The octave feature two traditional quatrains, while the sestet sections into two tercets.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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" the widely quoted lines: "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.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Reading of Lazarus' "The New Colossus"

Colossus of Rhodes

Source

Commentary

Emma Lazarus' poem, "The New Colossus," became a symbol for great opportunities of freedom.

First Quatrain: A Woman with a Torch

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

The Colossus of Rhodes has long been considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. Only in legend, however, did it stand "land to land." It has been determined that the physics of such a huge statue renders that image an impossibility. Interestingly, the Colossus of Rhodes was also erected as a monument to freedom, exactly the same purpose of the Statue of Liberty.

The Colossus of Rhodes is also not a "man," as Lazarus poem might be interpreted to imply, but rather was a symbol of the sun god, Helios, his masculine features notwithstanding. Upon close examination of "Lady Liberty," one is hard put to delineate any "feminine" qualities of the statue. And some pundits have suggested that the model for the statue was the brother of the sculptor.

Nevertheless, the image of a gentility that is mostly considered "feminine" prevails regarding the statue, and citizens world-wide have come to see the statue with the "mind's eye,"—even perhaps the "heart's eye"—rather than the physical eyes that clearly detect no sign of femininity in the sculpture.

It is thus that the speaker of the poem places the Lady, who is a "mighty woman," lifting a torch on "our sea-washed, sunset gate," standing with that torch yielding forth that famous flame.

Second Quatrain: Her Welcoming Stance

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

From that famous torch flames forth that "imprisoned lightning." Of course, the flame must be "lightning," without which the drama and profundity of her message of freedom would lack intensity. And of course, this woman, this Lady Liberty, has a magnificent name; she is the "Mother of Exiles." She beckons those in need with a "world-wide welcome."

Lady Liberty stands between New York City and Brooklyn in the New York Harbor. Until 1898, some fifteen years after the poem appeared, the NYC and Brooklyn were considered two or "twin cities." The two were consolidated into a single unit in 1898.

First Tercet: Lady Liberty Speaks

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The speaker then allows Lady Liberty to speak; she opens by comparing the exceptional nation over which she watches to "ancient lands" that profess "storied pomp!" And from her "silent lips," she sends forth the message that has become widely quoted, and too often widely misinterpreted. Lady Liberty announces to the world that all those other lands drenched in pompous tales and exploits yet featuring citizens who huddle together and yearn for freedom can send those "tired" "poor" folks to her.

Second Tercet: A Big, Beautiful Door

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Lady Liberty's silent lips continue to describe the kinds of folks whom she will welcome with her lifted torch of freedom. Be they "wretched refuse," "homeless," or "tempest-tost," they are welcome to these wide-ranging shores. The Lady of freedom will continue to "lift [her] lamp" and will offer a "golden door" through which those seeking freedom and a better way of life may enter.

Not an Invitation to Criminals and Government Dependents

A clear-minded reading of Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus" reveals the hypocrisy of current news media grandstanders, who are using the immigration issue to bash the current government administration. Nowhere in the poem does Lady Liberty welcome criminals such as MS-13 or those who think they can come to the U.S.A. and be supported by government hand-outs.

Those thoughts would have been completely anathema to Lazarus and most others writing during that time period. The point of welcoming all of those who are "tired" "poor" who yearn for freedom is that although they have been stifled in their countries of origin, they are welcome to work, contribute, and enjoy the fruits of their labors in a welcoming, free environment that has been afforded the citizens of the United States of America by the country's Founding Fathers.

The sentiment of the poem simply creates an image of a woman holding a torch, welcoming all those sincere seekers of freedom who have always been welcome and will continue to be welcome regardless of the politics of any government administration or the willful hypocrisy of those who oppose their contemporaneous government.

Colossus of Rhodes 2

Source

Life Sketch 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, Lazarus 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).

Early on, Lazarus 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 to 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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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