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Symbols of Liberty
Emma Lazarus

Symbols of Liberty
  • Alide : An Episode of Goethe's Life (by )
  • Admetus and Other Poems (by )
  • The Poems of Emma Lazarus, Volume I, Nar... (by )
  • Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death, A... (by )
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Penned in 1883, the poem "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus reads:

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!"
This is the sonnet immortalized on the base of the Statue of Liberty. People now understand Lady Liberty as holding up her torch as a symbol of hope for immigrants seeking refuge in America, but it wasn’t initially created with this in mind. France gifted the statue to America as a brethren country of successful revolution. The upheld torch was meant to be a beacon of enlightenment, a symbol of breaking from old world monarchies and making the way for republics and democracies.

But a statue as prominent and evocative as Lady Liberty was bound to take on a more specified role. In order to help shoulder the cost of constructing the base, The American exhibitors held a fundraising event where they invited writers like Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Emma Lazarus to auction off sonnets. After some coaxing (for she did not like to “write poems to order”) Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus”, where it was some years later engraved on a plaque and fastened to the base of the statue. It has over the years become a synthesized vision of an innately American ideal. Poet James Russell Lowell said of it, “I liked [the] sonnet about the statue much better than I like the statue itself … [the] sonnet gives its subject its raison d’être which it wanted before quite as much as it wanted a pedestal.”
Emma Lazarus herself found inspiration for her poem while aiding Jewish Immigrants and refugees firsthand. Between 1881 and 1914, over 1.5 million Russian Jews came to America from the parts of West Russia known as the Pale of Settlement due to harsh policies and attitudes towards the Jews which sparked into violence once Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and the Jews were blamed for it. Lazarus, being of Jewish descent herself, threw all of her energies into helping her people immigrate. She wrote essays and poems to and about Jewish people lobbying for better living situations and education for them, she taught English to them, and was a fierce advocate for Zionism. 

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall once said, “one of the principle functions of the artist is to help the layman order his cultural universe.”  It’s obvious that Emma lived up to her talent in this manner, and took her function and status as an artist to heart. Although “The New Colossus” has never really left the spotlight, it has gained new convictions in America in recent months due to the current refugee crisis and America’s mixed response to it. In celebration of July 4th, America’s Independence Day, check out more of Lazarus’ truly American poetry including An Episode of Goethe’s Life, Admetus and Other Poems, The Narrative, Lyrics, and Dramatic Poems of Emma Lazarus, and Songs of a Semite, The Dance to Death and Other Poems.

By Thad Higa

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