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!”
Overview & History
Few poems have slipped into American culture as fundamentally as Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus”. Written in 1883, this poem was created for an auction to raise money for the construction of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, a famous statue gifted to the United States from France to honor America’s Centennial. Being Jewish and having helped Jewish immigrants who fled from pogroms in Russia, Lazarus knew the affects of xenophobia and the importance of the United States being a symbol of Freedom and refuge. You can see this message throughout “The New Colossus”, portraying the ideal that the United States take in all sorts of persecuted peoples, and that this land holds a “golden door” to safety. This message is particularly impactful when you take into account the time-frame of these events. A year prior to Lazarus writing this poem the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act had been passed and signed by President Chester A. Arthur. This act, meant to appease middle and lower-class Americans who felt as if Chinese laborers were taking jobs away from them, greatly restricted future immigration from China. Additionally, the act impacted Chinese immigrants already inside the country making it so if they left they had to obtain a certificate of reentry prior to leaving, a complicated and difficult task, as well as prohibiting Federal and State courts from granting Chinese immigrants citizenship. Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” became enshrined on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty in 1903, a year after Congress made the Exclusion Act permanent and strengthened it requiring all Chinese immigrants to have a certificate of residence or face deportation.
Textual Summary & Analysis
The poem starts out with a deified description of the Statue of Liberty, glorifying its elegance above that of the famous Greek statue the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Lazarus draws the distinction between how the Colossus of Rhodes symbolized conquest with “limbs astride from land to land”. Meanwhile, her New Colossus, the Statue of Liberty, is portrayed as a symbol of refuge for the persecuted, referring to America’s shores as “sunset gates” and dubbing the Statue of Liberty as the “Mother of Exiles”. While benevolent and kind, this symbol of America is also portrayed as strong and mighty, characterizing Lady Liberty as “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame, Is the imprisoned lightning.” This worked as an appeal to the patriotism of Americans, allowing for Lazarus to make her more political statement in the following lines. In the final five lines of her most famous work, Lazarus issued a call for the United States to be the idealistic symbol of freedom people now commonly claim it to be. Having Lady Liberty utter the now famous lines, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.
Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” was memorialized on the Statue of Liberty in 1903 and has since entered into United States’ consciousness as a defining piece of literature for American identity. Its lines and inspirational message has since become a sort of rallying cry for refugee and immigration activist movements throughout American history, being a common symbol used to criticize legislation and political actions meant to negatively impact immigrants and refugees. Recently her words have been used to criticize actions taken by President Donald Trump such as his alleged persecution of Hispanic immigrants and his controversial travel ban. Regardless of political beliefs, Lazarus’ poem undoubtedly helped cement the concept of the United States as a symbol of freedom for the world into the American narrative.
Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus is a piece of literature which represents what many believe to be the “American Dream” and what the United States represents. The United States has traditionally been seen as a place of freedom in which those who are oppressed, without rights, or in search of a better life can go and be welcomed. A place where people can escape suppression and through hard work can justly create the life which they want for themselves and their families. The New Colossus recognizes the fact that the colonized Americas are made up of immigrants and states that it will continue to sympathize with newcomers who are attempting to attain the lives which present U.S. citizens or their ancestors had immigrated for. It promises a home that will remain a free state of opportunity for anyone who is willing to work for it. The United States has been seen as a beacon for where people can live in harmony with their differences in lineage, class, religion and culture. A nation free of persecution.
Why do you think that the aspirations expressed in “The New Colossus” have made their way into the common American narrative? Do you believe that the United States has a responsibility to live up to ideals espoused in a poem? Why?
While the United States has traditionally been seen as a place containing all of this ideology, why has this only been true to some groups of people here? What examples of this hypocrisy have there been in U.S. history?
Taking into consideration the principals which the United States were founded on, why do you believe that the views of many U.S. citizens today remain unwavering in their negative opinions of immigrants and groups of people whom are different than themselves?
There are many present day examples of how the view of the immigrant in the United States has been dehumanized and warped. From increasing the difficulty to immigrate to the United States, negative speech about immigrants from elected officials, to bans on specific groups of people being put in place. Why has this rhetoric come to the forefront more recently? Was it always there and was just unrecognized by the mainstream population?
In Emma Lazarus’ poem, she speaks of bringing to the U.S. those who are yearning to be free and those without a home. A group of people whom this specifically reflects are the Jewish. They have historically been persecuted, hunted and chased from their homes. This makes them a nearly perfect example of the types of people that the United States is supposed to be a safe haven for. With this in mind, why does there continue to be antisemitism and attacks on Jewish citizens in the United States today? Think of the 2018 Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting.