To commemorate the Fourth of July, here’s this month’s Poetry Sunday. American readers will likely recognize today’s poem immediately, as well they should: it’s engraved on a plaque mounted on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. But what may not be as widely known are the freethought sympathies of the poet.
Emma Lazarus was born in 1849 in New York City, the daughter of parents who were descended from generations of Sephardic Judaism. But according to the Jewish Virtual Library, “the Lazarus family relegated their Jewish religious life to the formal, occasional expression that good manners required.” Emma, the fourth of seven children, displayed poetic talent from an early age, and her proud father published her first volume of poetry when she was sixteen. Her work attracted the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who befriended her and to whom she dedicated a later work, Admetus and Other Poems.
It was nationality and heritage that moved Lazarus, not religion. After personally meeting some of the Jewish immigrants who fled to America after a series of brutal pogroms in Russia, she became a passionate advocate of the nascent Zionist movement. In books and letters, she argued that only the establishment of a Jewish homeland would put a stop to then-rampant anti-Semitism and persecution. But when a local rabbi invited her to use her poetic talent to contribute to a hymn book, she responded, “I will gladly assist you as far as I am able; but that will not be much. I shall always be loyal to my race, but I feel no religious fervor in my soul.”
After a brief but impassioned life, Emma Lazarus died in 1887 at the age of 38. The following poem, her most famous work, was written in 1883 to assist a fund-raising endeavor to build the pedestal upon which the statue now sits. In the poem’s title and opening lines, she contrasts the Statue of Liberty against the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the wonders of the ancient world, describing it as a monument to freedom rather than conquest. Her enduring conception of the Statue as a beacon shining out to oppressed and disenfranchised people everywhere has resounded through America’s history and given voice to the ideals our country stands for. Though America has not always lived up to its founding principle of liberty, when we have honored this principle, we have given hope and courage to the downtrodden throughout the world.
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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
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