The New Colossus
Written by: Emma Lazarus (1883)
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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Do you think you know the story about the famous words from this poem and the Statue of Liberty? It may surprise you to learn some facts about the iconic monument and the words inscribed there. Here is a brief history about poet Emma Lazarus, her famous work, and Lady Liberty.
The Jewish Female Connection
Emma Lazarus had deep roots in American soil. Her ancestors had come here as immigrants since before the American Revolution. They established themselves and participated in the small but growing Jewish community in New York.
Far from being "wretched refuse" herself, Lazarus enjoyed a privileged childhood in Manhattan. She was raised in the lap of luxury, but even as a child she exhibited a talent for poetry as well as a sensitivity and perceptiveness beyond her years. She was vitally interested in her family, her city, and her people.
A reader and a dreamer, Lazarus had the good fortune to claim Ralph Waldo Emerson as a pen-pal and mentor. Nurtured by Emerson and her family, she worked hard to became a respected poet recognized throughout the country for verses about her Jewish heritage.
In the early 1880's, Emma became aware of the harsh discrimination against Jews who lived in Eastern Europe, especially those under the rule of Russia's newest czar. Fortunately, many of these outcasts were able to make the long and arduous trek walking across Europe to sail in steerage, in unimaginably harsh circumstances, for weeks across the unpredictable Atlantic Ocean, to the United States where the streets were said to have been paved with gold. In reality, they found life on the Lower East Side of New York as inhospitable in its own way as had been the villages from which they fled.
Lazarus was so taken with what she would see, read and hear that she began to volunteer in institutions set up for helping these new "greenhorns," teaching them to read and learn English.
She became their spokesperson; they became her crusade. Already known as a woman of immense intelligence, Emma published articles in the leading journals and newspapers, Jewish and general. She studied Hebrew and Yiddish and steeped herself in Jewish history and culture.
In her career, Emma Lazarus had to contend with American and Jewish middle-class prescriptions for womanly behavior. These gender expectations included limitations on a woman artist's expression.
In "Echoes" (probably written in 1880) Lazarus spoke self-consciously about women as poets, describing the boundaries drawn around a woman poet who cannot share with men the common literary subjects of the "dangers, wounds, and triumphs" of war and must therefore transform her own "elf music" and "echoes" into song. Successful at that act of transformation, Lazarus found some well-deserved space in the American literary world.
The Statue of Liberty and "The New Colossus"
"The New Colossus" was written as a donation to an auction of art and literary works conducted by the "Art Loan Fund Exhibition in Aid of the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund for the Statue of Liberty" to raise money for the pedestal's construction. Lazarus's contribution was solicited by fundraiser William Maxwell Evarts, U.S. Secretary of State and the grandson of Declaration of Independence signer Roger Sherman.
Initially she refused to write anything for the fund. But, prolific American writer Constance Cary Harrison convinced her that the statue would be of great significance to immigrants sailing into the harbor, and it was suggested that she write about subject in the context of her beloved Jewish immigrants.
Harrison later recalled that she encouraged Lazarus to change her mind by saying, “Think of that goddess standing on her pedestal down yonder in the bay, and holding her torch out to those Russian refugees of yours that you are so fond of visiting at Ward’s Island.”
So, Lazarus agreed to try. Three days later, she had finished "The New Colossus."
"The New Colossus" was the only entry read at the exhibit's opening, but was forgotten and played no role at the opening of the statue in 1886.
Emma Lazarus' sonnet to the Statue of Liberty was hardly noticed by the American public until after her death. In 1901, Lazarus's friend and patron of the New York Arts, Georgina Schuyler, found it tucked into a small portfolio of poems.
Schuyler began an effort to memorialize Lazarus and her poem. She wanted to have its last five lines become a permanent part of the statue itself. Schuyler called upon Richard Watson Gilder, Emma's editor and friend, to help her. It took two years of red tape to achieve the work. But, because of the persistence of Schuyler and Gilder, a bronze tablet that bears the test of "The New Colossus" found its place on the inner wall of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903.
By that time the statue had been standing in the harbor for nearly 17 years, and millions of immigrants had passed by it. And for those fleeing oppression in Europe, the Statue of Liberty did seem to be holding a torch of welcome.
By 1945, the engraved poem was relocated--including all fourteen lines-- to be placed over the Statue of Liberty's main entrance.
Until a 1986 renovation, it was mounted inside the pedestal; today it resides in the Statue of Liberty Museum in the base. It is accompanied by a tablet given by the Emma Lazarus Commemorative Committee in 1977, celebrating the poet's life.
From these beginnings, "The New Colossus" became one of the best known and most often quoted documents in the American experience. Children's textbooks began to include the sonnet and Irving Berlin wrote it into a Broadway musical.
(Felder, Deborah G; Rosen, Diana L. Fifty Jewish Women Who Changed the World. 2003)
Understanding The History of the "Gift"
In her poem, "The New Colossus," Lazarus contrasts the soon-to-be installed symbol of the United States, the Statue of Liberty, with what many consider the perfect symbol of the Greek and Roman era, the Colossus of Rhodes.
The Colossus was a statue of the Greek Titan Helios, erected in the city of Rhodes on the Greek island of the same name by Chares of Lindos between 292 and 280 BC. It is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and was constructed to celebrate Rhodes' victory over the ruler of Cyprus, Antigonus I Monophthalmus, whose son unsuccessfully besieged Rhodes in 305 BC.
The "wonder" itself was over 30 meters (98.4 ft) tall. It was a statue of Helios, the male personification of the sun. He was imagined as a handsome god crowned with the shining aureole of the Sun, who drove the chariot of the sun across the sky each day to earth-circling Oceanus and through the world-ocean returned to the East at night.
It is well known that French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Barthold, himself, created the Statue of Liberty with the well-known Colossus in mind.
But, many Americans do not know that he initially drew designs for the statue of a robed woman to grace the entrance to the Suez Canal. It was to double as a lighthouse and represent Egypt bringing light to the people of Asia. But Egypt couldn't afford to pursue the project and it was decided, instead, to make the statue "a gift of friendship from the people of France" to commemorate American independence.
The monument that was eventually created represents the Roman goddess Libertas. While freedom of migration is a significant aspect of modern enlightenment, it was not initially the dominant concept the statue enshrined.
So, few today people realize that even once France made the decision to give the "gift" to America, Bartholdi did not intend for the Statue of Liberty to become a symbol of welcome for thousands of European immigrants. As political propaganda for France, the Statue of Liberty was first intended to be a path of enlightenment for the countries of Europe still battling tyranny and oppression.
Also the committees supporting the statue in the United States faced great difficulties in obtaining funds to build the pedestal. The Panic of 1873 had led to an economic depression that persisted through much of the decade. The Liberty statue project was not the only such undertaking that had difficulty raising money: construction of the obelisk later known as the Washington Monument sometimes stalled for years; it would ultimately take over three-and-a-half decades to complete.
There was criticism both of Bartholdi's statue and of the fact that the gift required Americans to foot the bill for the pedestal. In the years following the Civil War, most Americans preferred realistic artworks depicting heroes and events from the nation's history, rather than allegorical works like the Liberty statue.
There was also a feeling that Americans should design American public works—the selection of Italian-born Constantino Brumidi to decorate the Capitol had provoked intense criticism, even though he was a naturalized U.S. citizen. Harper's Weekly declared its wish that "M. Bartholdi and our French cousins had 'gone the whole figure' while they were about it, and given us statue and pedestal at once."
The New York Times stated that "no true patriot can countenance any such expenditures for bronze females in the present state of our finances."Faced with these criticisms, the American committees took little action for several years.
A ceremony of dedication was held on the afternoon of October 28, 1886. President Grover Cleveland, the former New York governor, presided over the event. On the morning of the dedication, a parade was held in New York City; estimates of the number of people who watched it ranged from several hundred thousand to a million.
A nautical parade began at 12:45 p.m., and President Cleveland embarked on a yacht that took him across the harbor to Bedloe's Island for the dedication. There, dignitaries made speeches. No members of the general public were permitted on the island during the ceremonies, which were reserved entirely for the dignitaries.
The only females granted access were Bartholdi's wife and de Lesseps's granddaughter; officials stated that they feared women might be injured in the crush of people. The restriction offended area suffragists, who chartered a boat and got as close as they could to the island. The group's leaders made speeches applauding the embodiment of Liberty as a woman and advocating women's right to vote. A scheduled fireworks display was postponed until November 1 because of poor weather.
Shortly after the dedication, the Cleveland Gazette, and African American newspaper, suggested that the statue's torch not be lit until the United States became a free nation "in reality":
"Liberty enlightening the world," indeed! The expression makes us sick. This government is a howling farce. It can not or rather does not protect its citizens within its own borders. Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the 'liberty' of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious colored man to earn a respectable living for himself and family, without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, and his property destroyed. The idea of the 'liberty' of this country 'enlightening the world,' or even Patagonia, is ridiculous in the extreme."
("Postponing Bartholdi's Statue Until There Is Liberty for Colored as Well."
The Cleveland Gazette. November 27 1886)
Understanding the Poem "The New Colossus"
Emma Lazarus begins her poem "The New Colossus" with bold denial: "Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame…" This trope allows her a dramatic build-up to proclaiming Liberty's gender. The subject of her sentence is "a mighty woman" and the grand climax reached in line six designates the woman to be "Mother of Exiles" downplaying her mere size and, instead, emphasizing the morally greater concept of all-generous maternity.
"Our sea-washed, sunset gates" is a mournful image combining the sense of expansive, gently-gilded western horizons with the exile's homesick melancholy. The new life is reached only through the sunset of the old one
This closure turns to fiery hope as the image of light in the sonnet becomes evident. Lady Liberty's torch holds "imprisoned lightning," suggesting Promethean powers. It is a beacon for the oppressed.
The “imprisoned lightning” of the lamp held by liberty is a reference to a line from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” These reminiscences of the Battle Hymn suggest a revolutionary memory at the heart of the poem otherwise full of peaceable intent. The statue's "mild eyes command" the harbor to liberty having witnessed many battles fought in its defense.
"The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame" is differently interpreted to this day by the poem's commentators. Some say the twin of New York City is Jersey City; others disagree. The Brooklyn Bridge was erected in May, 1883 -- the year the poem was composed. It is likely that Lazarus wanted to convey the thrilling new sight of this great suspension bridge, and that she used "air-bridged" as a compressed allusion to the wonderful "airiness" of the construction: therefore, the city is Brooklyn.
One of the most interesting lines in the poem involves the cry of Lady Liberty "with silent lips": "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" This reference blends myths of nationhood with self-glorifying display. It shows Lazarus' negative impression of antiquity building a colossus to commemorate conquering Greeks.
Libertas, the Lady of Liberty, was recognized in ancient Rome by the rod (vindicta or festuca) used ceremonially in the act of Manumissio vindicta, Latin for "Freedom by the Rod":
- "The master brought his slave before the magistratus and stated the grounds (causa) of the intended manumission. The lictor of the magistratus laid a rod (festuca) on the head of the slave, accompanied with certain formal words, in which he declared that he was a free man ex Jure Quiritium, that is, "vindicavit in libertatem." The master in the meantime held the slave, and after he had pronounced the words "hunc hominem liberum volo," he turned him round (momento turbinis exit Marcus Dama, Persius, Sat. V.78) and let him go (emisit e manu, or misit manu, Plaut. Capt. II.3.48), whence the general name of the act of manumission. The magistratus then declared him to be free."
(George Long. Entry "Manumission" in William Smith's
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. 1875).
This line was inscribed on the bronze plaque by mistake without the comma after "keep," making the interpretation a bit different. It meant that the immigrants would be making their own legends in America and leaving behind the stories of their homeland. Consider the difference without the comma: "'Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!' cries she with silent lips."
Of course, the following lines, a direct quote from Libertas have proven to be the most memorable, iconic words from "The New Colossus":
"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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
The "huddled masses" image is unforgettably gut wrenching and narrative. It reminds us the refugees lived in slums or ghettos, in overcrowded conditions that would have been repeated at sea for the majority who travelled steerage to America. Their "yearning to breathe free" was not, therefore, only metaphorical.
In the next line, "refuse" is a shocking, unexpected noun of description. Of course, English equates refuse with rubbish. Lazarus forces the reader to see the exiles as they were seen by the regimes that despised and dehumanized them. For contemporary readers, additional images of homelessness and genocide will inhabit these lines.
The "lamp beside the golden door" speaks confidently of a guarantee, a vow for security and acceptance in a new world of American liberty. "Golden" is a reference not merely to prosperity but also to shining opportunity -- something to which the litter of other nations was unaccustomed.
Although Lady Liberty speaks with the grandeur of an empress in the poem's idealized vision, she commits to remaining a universal mother, offering home and hearth to the destitute, and the hope of a more prosperous future to all.
When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886, the ceremonial speeches had nothing to do with immigrants arriving in America. Lazarus' words, however, turned that idea on its head.
Thanks to her and her verse, the Statue of Liberty, the 305 feet-tall monument towering over New York Harbor, would forever on be considered a beacon of welcome for immigrants leaving their mother countries.
In the mind of Emma Lazarus the statue was not symbolic of liberty flowing outward from America, as Bartholdi envisioned, but rather a symbol of America being a refuge where those oppressed could come to live in liberty.
Let's not forget Lazarus was a woman who held little respect in the America in which she lived. She was also a Jew who recognized and fought significant discrimination and hatred of her religion. Although rich, her people and she had lived through much oppression to achieve their stations in life.
She would not have been as effective on behalf of Jews if she had not believed deeply in America's freedoms, and she could not have been as passionate a writer if she had not uncovered her own meaningful response to Judaism.
Over the following decades, especially in the 1920s, when the United States began to restrict immigration, the words of Emma Lazarus took on deeper meaning. And whenever there is talk of closing America's borders, relevant lines from "The New Colossus" are always quoted in opposition.
The important question today may be "Does (Or ever did?) the United States really want anyone's "huddled masses," "wretched refuse," "homeless," or "tempest-tossed"?
Immigration policy in the United States has been rooted in economics. The country has relied on cheap labor to fuel the economy, and immigrants were ready and willing candidates to do work. Quota systems used throughout the history of immigration policy reflect the disposition of the economic and political environments that were present at the time.
As you look upon the Statue of Liberty, I believe it is fair to ask how much a grand ideal had to do with the construction of the monument and the symbolism we automatically associate with its copper, iron, and masonry. The history of the statue is just as telling as the struggle of Americans to instill and maintain true liberty. Perhaps ideals and monuments to vaulted freedoms must remain projects "under construction" in order to reflect enduring struggles and continued hope.