The name Emma Lazarus was probably unknown to most when, on October 28, 1886, throngs gathered to dedicate Liberty Enlightening the World, later to become known as The Statue of Liberty, France’s gift to the United States. As we now celebrate the 125th anniversary of its dedication, Lazarus is known as the poet whose words grace the statue’s pedestal. Her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” was written to raise money for the Statue’s Pedestal Fund (the U.S. was to provide the pedestal for the Statue), but it was not until 1903, sixteen years after her death, after the tireless lobbying of Lazarus’ friend, Georgina Schuyler, that her words were mounted on a bronze tablet inside the pedestal. And it was not until decades after her words were put on display that the sonnet became widely known and associated with the Statue.
Lazarus’ background was likely a contributing factor in her semi-obscurity. Although Lazarus was a fourth-generation American from a wealthy family who was mentored by Ralph Waldo Emerson, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive:
As a Jewish American woman, Emma Lazarus faced the challenge of belonging to two often conflicting worlds. As a woman she dealt with unequal treatment in both. The difficult experiences lent power and depth to her work. At the same time, her complicated identity has obscured her place in American culture.
The now famous lines, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” were inspired by Lazarus’ frequent trips to Ward’s Island where many Jews who fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe were being held. She was saddened by the plight of the Russian Jews she met at Castle Garden and unsuccessfully attempted to raise funds to benefit the refugees. With her sonnet, she broadened her appeal to include all immigrants. In a recent New York Times article, Sam Roberts quotes Professor Esther Schor, author of a biography of Lazarus, as saying, “the statue was a special kind of mother—a ‘mother of exiles’—a mother whose mission is not to reproduce herself, but rather to adopt the abandoned, the orphaned, the persecuted.”
With her words, Lazarus defined the Statue for all Americans past and present. James Russell Lowell is quoted in an article by Marjorie Backman in The Daily praising the poem:
“I like your sonnet about the statue — much better than I like the statue itself,” he wrote. “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.”
Given to the United States to commemorate its long-standing friendship with France and to honor its independence from Great Britain, these ideas, though duly appreciated, did little to inspire awe in the individual citizen. Yet once the statue was imbued with humanity though the words of “The New Colossus,” it became a symbol with which most, if not all, Americans could find a personal bond. And the power of these words were felt worldwide as the Statue came to symbolize the ideas of freedom and opportunity to those who were oppressed, to those who yearned for the chance to begin a new life.
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!”
—Emma Lazarus, 1883
P.S. The “twin cities” to which Lazarus refers in this poem are New York and Brooklyn, not Minneapolis and St. Paul!