Poetry Sunday: The New Colossus

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!”

Other posts in this series:

Alabama Speaking Recap
I Get Religious Mail: If Wishes Were Airplanes
You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • He Who Invents Himself

    “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses [...]” That’s the part I’ve always heard referenced.

  • Alex Weaver

    This bit always makes me a bit misty-eyed.

    I have some lovely pictures of the statue, too, though I didn’t actually set foot on the island when I went to New York (ironically, Liberty Island now requires “airport-style security screening” to access, according to the websites).

    Her freethought sympathies are interesting; I hadn’t heard that before.

  • silentsanta

    Lovely, thankyou. It’s thrilling that the message is so timeless. I haven’t been to NY yet, and have been told by friends that the statue, like the Mona Lisa, was ‘disappointingly small’. But that moved me.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Alex: Me too. :)

    I’ve been inside the statue once, before it was closed off in the wake of 9/11. There’s a long, tightly winding spiral staircase all the way up to the crown, where there are some small windows to look out of. It wasn’t a particularly memorable experience, but still, I wish they’d reopen it. We should have learned by now not to jump at our own shadows.

  • Christopher

    Ebonmuse, this government does little more than jump at its own shadow (well, that force its whims on the citizenry) – you’d think that this social order was fragile as glass by the way they behave. Maybe it *is* more fragile than what it lets us onto?

  • exrelayman

    Emma traveled to Europe before the statue was erected. On the voyage home she was very fatally ill and though the ship entered through the harbor where the statue stood, she was so weak and depleted that she was unable even to be helped up in order to see it. A very poignant tragedy that few know about. Through time, my heart goes out to this wonderful lady.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I hadn’t known that, exrelayman. Thanks for contributing. That’s a heartbreaking tragedy, but I’m glad that at least her work lives on.