The Poems (We Think) We Know: Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”

On Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus"

By Alexandra SocaridesApril 2, 2013

    The Poems (We Think) We Know: Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”


    WHEN I TELL PEOPLE that I am writing my first poetry column for the Los Angeles Review of Books about the poem that is on the base of the Statue of Liberty, they often look at me quizzically, as if they only kind of know what I am talking about. They may be thinking, “Did I know there was a poem on the Statue of Liberty?” or, better yet, “Yes, I know there is a poem there, but I can’t remember how it goes or who it is by.” In order to put an end to the awkward silence that often follows, I sometimes say, “You know: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, et cetera, et cetera,’” at which point some people nod happily along and in unison with “et cetera” precisely because, if they know the poem at all, this is exactly where their knowledge of the lines ends.

    In fact, it turns out that almost no one knows the entire poem that adorns the statue’s pedestal, and very few people have ever heard of the poet who wrote it. In this column — the first of what I hope will be many to come, each about a single poem, often a poem that we think we know but don’t really know — I will immerse you in the stories that poems tell, stories about their own making, about the world from which they came and the world in which they continue to exist, stories about what we as readers have done with them over time. In the case of “The New Colossus” — the formally stunning, politically subversive, yet oddly forgettable poem that Emma Lazarus composed in November 1883 and that was engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903 — this story take us from ancient Greece to Hurricane Sandy, from US anti-immigrant legislation to the crimes committed against Russian Jews at the end of the 19th century, from the challenges faced by a woman poet who wrote for a very public audience to the other, silent monument that displays these lines.


    I say that “The New Colossus” is “oddly forgettable” precisely because before I started writing about it, I too had forgotten it, yet now that I know it so well, I think it is odd that anyone would ever forget it. It is, in my opinion, quite remarkable from start to finish: 

    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!”

    Because it is a Petrarchan sonnet, it exists in two parts: an opening eight-line section, which describes the statue, followed by the six-line section, which is the monologue that said statue is imagined to speak. The rhymes are as perfect as can be; the meter is calibrated to fit the poem’s emotions; and just when we think it might be a formally simple poem, it displays a mastery of syntax and rhythm through the enjambment of certain key lines. 

    That being said, the poem has certain tics that a sensitive reader could find tiring. It uses a number of compound, hyphenated words, and, on a related note, it relies heavily on simple adjective-noun phrases. In fact, it’s a little unbelievable that a 14-line poem could have gone to the same syntactical well so many times. Couple this with the lines of intense alliteration and one might think that Lazarus was trying to see just how “poetic” she could make her poem. Use of such blatant poetic devices risks making the poem seem formulaic at times.

    Interestingly, when we look at the content of her poem, we find that Lazarus is particularly concerned with the issue of originality. As if in reaction to the fact that her poem relies on the sonnet tradition and plunders the poet’s toolbox, Lazarus makes clear from the very first word that the subject of her poem does not rely on aesthetic models of the past. The “brazen giant of Greek fame” (which her statue is “not like”) is the Colossus of Rhodes, a massive bronze statute of the Greek God Helios that was erected between 292 and 280 BC on the island of Rhodes to celebrate Greece’s victory over Cyprus — a statue to which, ironically, the Statue of Liberty had been compared in the press. While the Colossus of Rhodes was destroyed by an earthquake less than 60 years after it was erected, historians, architects, and artists have long been obsessed with its image (it is considered one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World”), and Lazarus’s description of it reveals that she must have been familiar with one of the many visual renderings. For instance, in this 16th-century engraving by Maarten van Heemskerck,


    we can see that, in fact, the statue’s legs are figured as stretching across the port — from “land to land” — something that present-day architects say would have been impossible for a variety of reasons including weight, height, and issues of construction, to say nothing of the fact that, had it actually straddled the port, its remnants would have been found at the sea floor after the earthquake. 

    Regardless of the historical accuracy, this image is perfect for Lazarus because it allows her to distinguish her statue’s pose from the archetypal one of ancient Greece. Doing so lets her imagine that America’s 19th-century statue is not only vastly different from its predecessors, but is in itself a rejection of historical forms and traditions. This statue is, simply put, a “woman with a torch.” Given this move, it should come as no surprise that Lazarus had been influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings in the earlier part of the century, when, in “The American Scholar” and “The Poet” in particular, he had called for Americans to shake off the old European forms. Emerson served, at times, as a mentor and friend to Lazarus. In a biographical essay written by her sister Josephine that appeared after Lazarus’s death, she writes that “[Emerson’s] books were bread and wine to [Emma], and she absorbed them into her very being.” Despite this kind of relationship — and they exchanged many letters over the years — Lazarus and Emerson parted ways in 1874 when Lazarus took offense at the fact that Emerson left her out of a new poetry anthology that he had edited. Regardless, it seems that Lazarus maintained Emerson’s perspective that America was a land that should invent new forms, literary and otherwise. 

    If the first sentence of the poem establishes that this statue is distinctly American and distinctly female, the second sentence looks outward from that perspective, in part asserting that that identity is what allows “her beacon-hand” to glow “world-wide welcome.” In a later section of this article I will take up what Lazarus was asserting (or assuming, or projecting) about late-19th-century immigration when she composed this line, but for now it is simply worth noting the deeply patriotic gesture that exists at the surface. As boats roll into the harbor, this female figure welcomes them with an arm cast open and a light meant to guide their way. When she speaks, or is imagined to speak (for even the poem acknowledges that her “lips” are “silent”), she begins by repelling and later shifts to inviting. America welcomes, the poem seems to say — although cannot fully say — a certain kind of immigrant: “tired,” “poor,” “huddled masses,” “wretched refuse,” and “homeless.” The condition of these immigrants gets more dire as the lines progress, until the statue invokes the light that she offers as they pass their way through “the golden door.” What happens on the other side of that door is not a concern of the poem, as the poem is simply a welcoming gesture, one that literally greeted immigrants as they arrived at Ellis Island between 1886 and 1954.


    In the time leading up to her composition of “The New Colossus,” Lazarus had been having a difficult time with her writing. Between 1879 and 1881, Edmund Clarence Stedman spent time with Lazarus, during which time she told him that she “had accomplished nothing to stir, nothing to awaken, to teach or to suggest, nothing that the world could not equally well do without.”  But then, in November 1883, she got her chance. 

    William M. Evarts, who was heading up the committee that was raising money to build a pedestal for Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s Liberty Enlightening the World (only later known as “The Statue of Liberty”), asked Lazarus to write a poem to aid in these efforts. Lazarus was initially reluctant, but eventually put pen to paper. Without ever seeing the statue in person, Lazarus wrote the poem and supplied the committee with a manuscript of the poem,


    which was sold at an auction on December 3, 1883, where she read it aloud. Several prominent literary types were impressed with the poem, and on December 17, 1883, James Russell Lowell wrote to her: “I must write you again to say how much I liked your sonnet about the statue — much better than I like the statue itself. But your sonnet gives its subject a raison d’être which it wanted before quite as much as it wants a pedestal. You have set it on a noble one, saying admirably just the right word to be said, an achievement more arduous than that of the sculptor. I have just been writing a sonnet myself & know how difficult a material one has to work in — how much more difficult when the subject is prescribed & not chosen.” The official dedication would not be held for almost three more years, when, on October 26, 1886, Lazarus would read the poem again. In 1903, it was engraved on a plaque that to this day adorns the pedestal. 

    Lowell’s letter is interesting at least in part because he compares the poem to the statue. In fact, he liked the poem more. Given how anticipated the statue had been by both Americans and the international population, this may seem like a strange stance. Unlike Lazarus’s poem, which was small in size, written quickly, and the production of one, the statue was a multinational undertaking that had been in the works for over a decade. Work had begun on the statue in France in the early 1870s, when France decided they wanted to bestow it as a gift to America. Bartholdi had been brought on as the designer, and, in a quest to outdo his classical predecessors, he set off to create an enormous statue. Over the 1870s, pieces of the statue could be seen on exhibit in multiple places. Here you can see the statue’s head on exhibit at the Paris World’s Fair in 1878. 

    These pieces were eventually shipped in crates to America. 

    But it wasn’t enough to have all the pieces of a massive statue; it needed a pedestal and site, which is where the Americans came in. Bedloe Island, in New York Harbor, was chosen as its site, and Richard Morris Hunt was chosen to design the pedestal. Almost immediately there was the problem of funds. Over the years to follow, the pedestal’s design was changed to save money — it was reduced in size, and the plan for solid granite walls was abandoned in favor of concrete — but there was still the need for many fundraising campaigns. Such campaigns were popular in the 19th century, and because of this Lazarus may have thought nothing of it when she was asked to donate the manuscript of her poem to this cause.

    It’s not at all strange that the committee asked Lazarus in particular, since by 1883 she was quite well known. Lazarus was born on July 22, 1849, into a large Jewish family that had been in New York City since the time of the American Revolution. Her mother, Esther Nathan, was German Jewish and her father, Moses Lazarus, was Sephardic, and they had seven children in total, of which Emma was the middle child. Moses worked as a sugar refiner, and the family belonged to the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue, Shearith Israel. This synagogue had been founded in 1654, was the first Jewish synagogue in North America, and until 1825 was the only Jewish congregation in New York City. During most of Lazarus’s life it was on 19th Street just off Fifth Avenue.


    Lazarus was educated in classic and modern languages including German, French, and Italian (all of which she would one day translate) and in 1866, when she was 17, she published her first book of poems, Poems and Translations. Her second volume, Admetus and Other Poems, was published in 1871; in 1881 she published Poems and Ballads of Heinrich Heine; and in 1882 she published her most famous collection, Songs of a Semite. Throughout these years she published poems and translations in all the popular periodicals, including The New York Times, The Jewish Messenger, The Galaxy, The Independent, Lippincott’s Magazine, and Scriber’s Monthly.

    Like most other 19th-century American women writers, though, Lazarus did not simply write in one genre. She wrote narrative and epic poetry, translations, criticism, reviews, stories, a novel, a prose romance, and a historical tragedy. But maybe even more importantly, she wrote on a wide variety of topics, many of which were international in their scope and concerns. It is to these other concerns that I will now turn, as they play a significant role in how Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus.”


    On January 11, 1882, the London Times published an article entitled “The Persecution of the Jews in Russia,” and this is most likely the source from which Lazarus first learned of the atrocities that had been occurring in Russia for the previous eight months. The article is filled with shockingly detailed accounts of the cruelties that had been plaguing Jews in the region: “Men ruthlessly murdered, tender infants dashed to death, or roasted alive in their own homes, married women the prey of brutal lust that has often caused their death, and young girls violated in the sight of their relatives by soldiers who should have been the guardians of their honour.” Although it was first reported in a British newspaper, news quickly spread to America, and in the first session of Congress in 1882, Samuel S. Cox urged Congress to speak up on this topic, precisely because “this country, as an asylum for the persecuted and downtrodden, should give its moral emphasis concerning a topic of such universal fraternity and significance.”

    In the wake of these events, Lazarus’s interest in Jewish culture, in helping Jews from across the world, and eventually in advocating for a separate Jewish nation picked up speed. Since 1881 she had been working with Jewish refugees at the Wards Island immigration center; in 1882 she began studying Hebrew with Louis Schnabel, who was the superintendent of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum; in February 1883 she published an essay entitled “The Jewish Problem” in The Century, in which she argued for a Jewish nation, a position with which many people — even prominent Jews — took issue; and in May 1883 she went to England to solicit support for “The Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews,” an organization she had established with several friends whose goal it was to resettle these Jews in Palestine. Despite all of this work, Lazarus was frustrated by her inability to do more. In May 1883, she wrote to Philip Cowen, the founder and editor of The American Hebrew, and bemoaned the fact that “the work I have done for the Jewish Cause seems to me painfully insignificant & slight, compared with the generous sympathy and encouragement I receive from my people. I can only hope by continuing my efforts, to be some day, worthy of such kind words & deeds.” 

    This is a history worth relating precisely because it tells us something about what Lazarus was concerned with when she sat down to write “The New Colossus.” These facts, I would argue, help us read Lazarus’s poem as something other than a patriotic, optimistic, and warm embrace of all immigrants to America’s shore. While we might read her welcoming gesture as a result of her awareness of the persecution of Jews halfway across the world, she was also cognizant of the widespread violence that had been directed at immigrants of all nationalities who already lived in America and of the American government’s own attempts at anti-immigration legislation. Most notably, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — the first law to severely restrict immigration — had recently been passed. Lazarus was under no delusion about America’s resistance to immigrants.

    While Lazarus seems not to have embedded a warning about America’s racist attitude toward immigrants in the poem itself, she tackles the politics of immigration by turning this American monument into one that has the history of the Jews inscribed on it. By making the statue into the “mother of exiles,” Lazarus turns the nation into the home of exiles, a home not unlike what she had been imagining for Jews in Palestine. Understanding the intensity of Lazarus’s preoccupations and desires as she wrote “The New Colossus” allows us to read what has always been considered the particularly American gesture of welcome and inclusion to a diversity of immigrants as, at least in part, Lazarus’s fantasy of what a nation far from American shores might do for Jewish exiles.

    One part of her fantasy of a Jewish state is about Jews in exile finding a safe home, but the other potentially more radical part of this fantasy is that there would be a Jewish mother there to welcome them. Whether we read the statue as the Biblical figure of Deborah, whose name translates to “woman of the torch,” or Rachel, an exile herself who was devoted until death to the exiles whom she heals, both are matriarchs of profound importance to the Jewish people. Disgusted by the politics that kept the Jewish people in a constant state of exile and emboldened by the work she had herself done with many of those exiles, Lazarus took this most public of opportunities to make the history of the Jewish people central to international politics.


    If knowledge of the poem “The New Colossus” has been reduced to knowledge of its final lines — the ones supposed to be spoken by the statue herself — then the woman who wrote these lines has been reduced to the poem she wrote. Buried in Cypress Hill Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, Lazarus produced, through dying, another monument that would bear her poem, since it is engraved on her grave marker.


    Standing less than 15 miles apart, these two monuments display the work of a now long-forgotten woman writer. Because Liberty Island has been closed to visitors since Hurricane Sandy swept through in October 2012 and because only the curious reader of gravestones would find Lazarus’s there (hers, unlike those of Jackie Robinson and Mae West, does not appear as a “Notable Burial” on their website), these lines are, for now, largely inaccessible.


    LARB Contributor

    Alexandra Socarides received her PhD in English from Rutgers University in 2007. Her first book, Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics, was published by Oxford University Press in June 2012. She is currently at work on a new book, which reads antebellum American women's poetry through the tropes, conventions, and postures made possible by the transatlantic literary marketplace. She is also the co-editor of The Poetry of Charles Brockden Brown, which will be published by Bucknell University Press in 2015.


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