The New Colossus
by Emma Lazarus
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!”
As we celebrate the 242nd birthday of this magnificent country we call home, it might be a good time to revisit the most iconic symbol of America besides our flag: the Statue of Liberty. Designed by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustav Eiffel between 1875 and 1885, it was presented as a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States. As part of the original proposal, the U.S. had committed to provide a site and build the pedestal, but when the time approached for delivery, the funds were not available to finance the pedestal’s construction. New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer—an Hungarian immigrant himself, whose legacy gift to Columbia University established the Pulitzer prizes—mounted a drive for donations and attracted more than 120,000 contributors, most of whom gave less than a dollar (which would be worth about $250 today).
Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), a well-known poet in her day, wrote her famous sonnet “The New Colossus” in 1883 as a donation to the art exhibition that launched this fundraiser. At that time, her focus was European Jews, famine-plagued Irish, Chinese, and others who emigrated to America to escape various kinds of persecution—many of whom came through Ellis Island. The Statue of Liberty was deliberately placed to be one of their first sights as they sailed into New York harbor. The statue’s dedication in 1886 was marked by a parade led by President Grover Cleveland. As it passed the New York Stock Exchange, traders threw ticker tape out their windows, thus making it New York’s first ticker-tape parade. In 1903, Lazarus’ powerful statement of the American ideal was cast into a bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal.
A sonnet is a poetic form consisting of 14 lines of iambic pentameter. This meter, which is well suited to the English language, consists of five metric “feet” per line, each with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one: “i LIFT my LAMP beSIDE the GOLden DOOR.” Lazarus’s sonnet adopts the rhyme scheme abba abba cdcdcd, effectively dividing it into two quatrains and a sestet. This pattern establishes it as a Petrarchan sonnet. The sets of rhyming words create natural units of thought, although Lazarus’s first two quatrains are linked with an enjambment. A Shakespearean sonnet, by contrast, employs three quatrains followed by a rhymed couplet. One sign of a successful poem is that the rhyme scheme is so skillfully woven into the poem’s structure and meaning as to be almost imperceptible, as is the case here. Its music simply elevates the beauty and enjoyment of the poem.
By beginning “The New Colossus” with the word “Not,” the poet affirms America’s independence and presents the New World as a contrast to the Old. The title alludes to the Colossus of Rhodes, a huge statue of the sun-god Helios which was built in 280 BC and is often depicted in illustrations as straddling the harbor of the Greek island of Rhodes. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world (of which only the Great Pyramid at Giza survives), it was destroyed by an earthquake in 226 BC. “Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame” associates the new American monument with the glories of the past, while at the same time reinventing them. The poet creates a contrast with the past and emphasizes the idea that her subject represents a new imagining, or redirection, of human aspirations. This reimagined figure of a robed woman, representing the Roman goddess Libertas, is both a defiance of the past and a symbol of the future.
Instead of a conquering warrior, this new statue is “a mighty woman,” still powerful, but welcoming rather than bellicose. She too stands in a “harbor that twin cities frame,” referring to New York and Brooklyn, which was a separate city until 1898. The powerful image of “imprisoned lightning” refers to the then-novel electric light that illuminates her torch, and seemingly imbues her with god-like powers. In contrast to the Old World, this “Mother of Exiles” is a nurturing symbol, lighting the way to a better life free from persecution. “From her beacon-hand / Glows world-wide welcome” is a powerful statement of American hope.
Throughout the poem, Lazarus uses alliteration and assonance to enhance her message. “limbs…from land to land,” “sea-washed, sunset gates,” and “world-wide welcome” all create a soft, feminine tone, in contrast to the harder, more grating b’s, z’s and g’s of “brazen giant of Greek fame.” Assonance, for example with “breathe free…teeming shore,” and consonance, with “imprisoned lightning, and her name,” add to the musicality of the poem.
The sestet, beginning with line 9, shifts gears entirely. Instead of the poet’s looking at the statue and describing it in the third person, now Lady Liberty comes to life and speaks for herself. It is this section that gives the poem its enduring power. Hers is a strong voice, both commanding and sincere. “Keep… your storied pomp!” she admonishes the countries across the Atlantic from which so many of our ancestors came—emphasizing a new sense of humility and respect for the working individual who thinks for him/herself. “Give me your tired, your poor,” she continues in the poem’s climactic lines, “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free!” Lazarus eloquently proclaims America’s historic role as a haven for the downtrodden, for the diverse immigrants who founded, tamed, and built our country. “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,” she entreats, vividly evoking the dangers asylum seekers face on their journey to freedom. Those whom no one else wants, the “refuse” (a synonym for trash) of other societies, will be valued here, she promises—treated with respect and given the opportunity to thrive. The immortal line, “I lift my lamp beside the golden door” invites all willing workers to the Land of Opportunity, where they can help to tame the acres of wilderness and create a new society of peace, justice, and equality. See the 7/2/18 New Yorker cover for a contemporary illustration of these lines.
As Phil Klay (winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Redeployment) points out, “America is an idea as much as a country.” “The New Colossus” summarizes the American dream and brilliantly conveys its time-honored vision of hope, freedom, and justice for all.