The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus
Emma Lazarus’s immortal words, “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” may have become indelible in the collective American memory, but they did not arrive there overnight. Indeed, Lazarus’ sonnet to the Statue of Liberty went unnoticed until after her death, when it was discovered tucked away in a small portfolio of poems written in 1883 to raise funds for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal construction. Georgina Schuyler, the statue’s patron, was moved by the poem and arranged for its final five lines to become a permanent part of the statue. Over two decades later, children’s textbooks began to incorporate the sonnet, and Irving Berlin adapted it into a broadway musical. By 1945, the engraved poem had been relocated to the Statue of Liberty’s main entrance, complete with all fourteen lines.
Today, the words themselves may be remembered more than the poet, but this was not the case in Lazarus’ time. Emma Lazarus grew up as a privileged member of New York’s social elite, nurtured by her family to become a respected poet known throughout the country for verses about her Jewish heritage. Lazarus, a reader and a dreamer, was fortunate to have Ralph Waldo Emerson as a pen pal and mentor. Lazarus developed from a sheltered girl writing flowery prose about Classical Antiquity to a sophisticated New York aristocrat troubled by the violent injustices suffered by Jews in Eastern Europe prior to her death at the age of 37.
In “The New Colossus,” Lazarus contrasts the soon-to-be-installed United States’ symbol with what many consider to be the ideal symbol of the Greek and Roman era, the Colossus of Rhodes. Her comparison was accurate, as Bartholdi based the Statue of Liberty on the well-known Colossus. However, what Bartholdi did not intend was for the Statue of Liberty to become a beacon of welcome for thousands of European immigrants. As political propaganda for France, the Statue of Liberty was originally intended to serve as a beacon of hope for Europe’s countries still struggling against tyranny and oppression. However, Lazarus’ words flipped that notion on its head: the Statue of Liberty would forever be viewed as a beacon of welcome for immigrants fleeing their homelands.
Similarly to how Lazarus’ poem repurposed the statue, the statue emitted a new ideal for the United States. Liberty did not simply refer to independence from the British aristocracy, which drove the American colonists to the Revolutionary War. Liberty also included the right to immigrate to the United States and establish a new life free of religious or ethnic persecution. The Statue of Liberty gained a new identity as a result of Larazus’ poem: she would now be known as the “Mother of Exiles,” torch in hand, leading her new children to American success and happiness.