Poem Guide

Emma Lazarus: “The New Colossus”

A sonnet stands tall where the ungoverned waters of literature meet the strict land of law.
Cropped illustration of Emma Lazarus, side profile.

Is any poem more of a public institution than “The New Colossus”? Since 1903, when it was first displayed on a plaque inside the base of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus’s signature sonnet has become one of the most renowned and quoted poems on the planet. It has managed this feat despite its author’s low profile during her lifetime, and despite having nearly lapsed into oblivion before its enshrinement. By now the pairing of sonnet and monument seems inevitable; the one has redefined the other. Lacking the force of law, yet permanently fixed in American civic culture, “The New Colossus” has carved out a literary niche all its own: it is a credo, a gesture of “world-wide welcome,” and a magnet for controversy.

As many commentators have noted, the poem is pluralistic in its roots. It is an Italian sonnet composed by a Jewish-American woman, contrasting an ancient Greek statue with a statue built in modern France. At the time of its writing in 1883, European immigrants—including Italians, Greeks, and Russian-Jewish refugees—were arriving en masse in America, stirring fierce debate and frequent hostility among “natives” (as U.S.-born descendants of earlier European immigrants called themselves). Within this tense climate, Emma Lazarus, a writer and activist from an affluent New York family, had begun volunteering to assist struggling exiles from Czarist Russia. Around the same time, George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda (1876), which explores proto-Zionist themes, had deepened her interest in her own Jewish heritage. When asked to contribute a poem to a fundraiser for a statue-in-progress, designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi for installation at New York Harbor, Lazarus took what proved to be a frutiful approach to public poetry: quietly investing her subject with her personal experience and concerns.

As first conceived by the artist, Lady Liberty represented, simply, liberty. The full title of Bartholdi’s statue is Liberty Enlightening the World. Its subject is the Roman goddess Libertas, familiar from the Eugène Delacroix painting Liberty Leading the People (1830), in which she carries a battle flag and gun. To honor Bartholdi’s more peaceful representation, Lazarus stressed a different aspect of freedom: not the courage to fight the enemy but the willingness to accept the stranger. The poem’s early audiences sensed the power of the reinterpretation. “The New Colossus” was, according to Lazarus biographer Bette Roth Young, “the only entry read at the gala opening” of the fundraising exhibition that had solicited art and literary works for auction. Later that year, poet James Russell Lowell wrote to Lazarus: “Your sonnet gives its subject a raison d’etre.”

It has also given its author lasting fame. Young notes that Lazarus placed it first in the manuscript she assembled prior to her death, as if knowing the sonnet could make her reputation. It did, but it may have pigeonholed her in the process. Biographer Esther Schor laments that “for more than a century, [fate] has been busy whittling down her legacy to a single sonnet.” Fitting or not, that legacy is one many poets would envy; few poems have ever leapt so dramatically beyond the anthology into the annals of history.

And yet, after its promising debut, the poem was almost forgotten. Lazarus died in 1887 with virtually no readership. According to the National Park Service:

It was not until 1901 … that Georgina Schuyler, a friend of hers, found a book containing the sonnet in a bookshop and organized a civic effort to resurrect the lost work. Her efforts paid off…

They paid off more than she could have known. The plaque she lobbied for went up two years later, embedding the poem in America’s conception of itself—and, to some degree, the world’s conception of America. Millions of T-shirts and trinkets attest to Liberty’s power as advertisement for the American Dream. Read cynically, “The New Colossus” is therefore a kind of glorified “pitch” (it grew out of a fundraiser, after all), and “Give me your tired, your poor” is a touching but deceptive slogan. Read generously, the poem was an audacious reimagining not only of the statue but of America’s role on the world stage. If it lacks the irony and internal conflict we now expect from modern literature, that’s because it was a conscious act of political mythmaking. Either way, its vision reaches well beyond its text. As an August 2017 New York Times piece observed, foreign visitors often associate the statue with welcome before they’ve encountered, or even heard of, the poem that forged the association.

Inclusive as that message of welcome aspires to be, there has always been a segment of the U.S. population that rejects it. Historian Paul A. Kramer, tracing the history of American xenophobia for Slate, notes that between the 1920s and 1960s, “[immigration] restrictionists refashioned the Statue of Liberty into a militant warrior-goddess guarding America’s beleaguered gates.” In 2017, presidential efforts to shut America’s door on Muslim refugees, undocumented Mexican immigrants, and other groups stirred fresh disputes over the Statue’s symbolism. When a reporter at a press briefing asked how the White House’s policies squared with Lazarus’s words, a senior advisor, echoing a popular nativist talking point, objected that the poem was “not actually part of the original” statue—and, by implication, isn’t really part of its meaning. News and literary outlets soon featured op-ed retorts, analyses, and “New Colossus” tribute poems skewering nativist bigotry. 130 years after her death, Emma Lazarus was the edgiest poet in America.

Hardcore nativists are not the only source of this conflict, however. It threads through all of American life and even, in some readings, “The New Colossus” itself. Lazarus’s description of immigrants as “wretched refuse” may not be intentionally condescending (“wretched” is supposed to connote pity rather than judgment; “refuse” ostensibly means “exiled people,” not “trash”), but it has raised many eyebrows over the years. Journalism professor Roberto Suro has written that it “applies to some refugees for sure, but not to most immigrants.” Jerry Seinfeld used to mock it in his stand-up routine: “I am for open immigration, but that sign we have in the front of the Statue of Liberty … Do we have to specify ‘the wretched refuse?’ … Why not just say, ‘Give us the unhappy, the sad, the slow, the ugly, the people that can’t drive…’”

Beneath the flip humor lie real tensions and questions. Does the poem’s humane plea contain a whiff of snobbery? Does it caricature the immigrant experience? Do most New Yorkers—and Americans in general—share Lazarus’s high ideals? Kramer judges that the poem “wore its ambivalence about immigrants on its sleeve … but it also expressed the idea of the United States as a haven for outcasts in bold new ways, ways that would face repeated onslaughts in the coming decades.” The onslaughts have never stopped coming, and the poem’s mix of boldness and ambivalence remains a challenge in every sense.

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Millions of tourists glance at “The New Colossus” each year, but few critics give it a close reading. The commentator Max Cavitch laments that it’s “almost universally underread.” We know what it represents as a cultural touchstone, but what does it say as a poem?

Lazarus begins her sonnet with an unusual device that we might call an inverse simile. She tells us what her subject is “not like”: the imperious and male Greek Colossus, which stood at the harbor of the island of Rhodes in the 3rd century BCE (legend says it straddled the harbor, a technical impossibility). It is against this famous forerunner that the poet defines Lady Liberty:

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.

The word “brazen” here does double duty; it means both made of brass (the Colossus of Rhodes was bronze-plated) and brash or arrogant, as conquerors tend to be. Lady Liberty, though equally “mighty,” is welcoming and protective by contrast. Hers is a proud maternal strength, which nevertheless seems to harness the power of the patriarchs; “the imprisoned lightning” of her electric torch recalls Zeus’s thunderbolt. The subsequent lines underscore this duality:

From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

She is a “beacon” of hospitality; she turns a “mild” face to the world and its exiles; yet she also commands. (Notice how “command” gains force from its position at the end of the line.) The “twin cities” she presides over are New York and Brooklyn, which would not formally merge until 1898. Her domain is the entrance to what was already, by 1883, America’s largest metropolis, but her role is to greet, not guard.

As is conventional in the sonnet, the rhetoric takes a “turn” in line 9. The closing sestet announces Liberty’s message to the Old World:

“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 part that even schoolchildren and politicians know—more or less. We remember the outpouring of compassion but tend to forget that it’s prefaced by a note of New York defiance. Your refugees are welcome here, Liberty says in effect, but not your stuck-up elite.

The “ancient lands” line is a democratic laugh in the face of European monarchy. Unfortunately, its tinge of gloating American exceptionalism may be the poem’s most dated aspect. In our era of hyperpartisanship, severe inequality, and dismal congressional approval ratings, Americans increasingly resent the pomp of their own rulers; some look to Europe for models of functional democracy. Meanwhile, Liberty’s outreach to “the homeless” is an uncomfortable reminder of the many “tired” and “poor” the country fails to shelter, whether they are born here or elsewhere. Then, too, many Americans are descended from—or, in Lazarus’s time, had themselves been—captives shipped across the Atlantic into slavery, without regard for their “yearning to breathe free.” Liberty omits this part of the story.

Kramer’s Slate essay, after tracing various betrayals of the Statue’s ideals throughout American history, concludes that “Visions of a generous United States … have beaten back formidable exclusionary forces in the past, and may yet again.” Lazarus would presumably share that hope. Yet the “golden door” is still, as it was in her own Gilded Age, more aspiration than actuality.

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We are used to discussing “The New Colossus” as social studies, not literature. But classic poetry never arises in a literary vacuum, or survives in one. Beyond the confines of its plaque, Lazarus’s poem participates in a rich dialogue with earlier and later texts.

Max Cavitch, for example, finds a model for Liberty’s “lamp” in Daniel Deronda, in which the proto-Zionist character Mordecai proclaims: “[W]hat is needed is the seed of fire. The heritage of Israel is beating in the pulses of millions …. Let the torch of visible community be lit!” There is good reason to believe this passage struck a chord with Lazarus, who had been profoundly moved by the novel and who was, as Schor notes, “the first well-known American publicly to make the case for a Jewish state.” Yet if Lazarus borrowed this symbol from Eliot, she also Americanized and extended it, recasting “the torch” as a beacon for all communities.

What about the influence of other poems? “The New Colossus” may owe a debt to the ecstatic pluralism of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” also set in the waters around New York City. An even likelier reference point is that other famous 19th-century sonnet about a statue: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (1818). Shelley’s depiction of a shattered monument to a boastful tyrant (“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”) mocks the hubris and transience of power. It is a cautionary tale about how glorious civilizations fall. Though the allusion is never explicit, it’s tempting to contrast Lady Liberty’s mild-eyed “command” with Ozymandias’s “sneer of cold command”; her democratic compassion with his autocratic cruelty; her message of hope with his call to “despair”; her triumphant wholeness with his brokenness.

“The New Colossus” echoes in modern poetry, too—and not only the political poetry for which it serves as explicit foundation. Sylvia Plath’s “The Colossus,” for example, also weaves a modern myth that alludes to the Colossus of Rhodes. Its ruined patriarchal statue littering an unvisited shore contrasts sharply—perhaps deliberately—with the “Mother of Exiles” greeting ships. Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1930), with its alternately ecstatic and despairing vision of America, at times seems visited by Lazarus’s ghost as well. In one section of Crane’s book, a drunken sailor lurches home “while the dawn / was putting the Statue of Liberty out”: a bleak moment whose irony depends for its effect on Lazarus’s optimism.

Without a doubt, however, “The New Colossus” has held its greatest sway beyond the page. In a way most poems do not, it exists near the border where the ungoverned waters of literature meet the strict land of law. Far out in those waters, language explores what is not literally the case; closer to land, it asserts what could or should be the case; crossing onto solid ground, it declares what shall be the case. “The New Colossus,” just shy of the shoreline, can never become law—can never actually require the U.S. to open its arms to strangers. It can only haunt us with the conviction that we should. Well into its second century, Lazarus’s masterpiece still commands the American imagination, offering a pledge that remains fulfillable but unfulfilled, impossible to enforce and impossible to repeal.

Originally Published: November 22nd, 2017

Austin Allen’s first poetry collection, Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press), won the 2016 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poems and essays have appeared widely. He lives and teaches in Cincinnati.