The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus. An Interactive Poem Annotated by Esther Schor

Not like the Brazen Giant of Greek fame,
Colossus of Rhodes Like Abraham of Ur, Emma Lazarus was a smasher of idols. Here she blasts the ancient Colossus of Rhodes, an image of the Titan
Helios, as a symbol of military conquest. In fact, the history of the Colossus is more benign than the sonnet would suggest. Standing over thirty meters tall, it was built between 292 and 280 BCE to celebrate the Rhodians’ defense of their city against Cyprus; weapons abandoned in the siege of Rhodes were both sold and smelted into bronze to build it. Less than 60 years later, it was felled by an earthquake. Observing it in fragments, Pliny the Elder marveled that “few men can get their arms around its thumb.” In 2008, The Guardian reported that a new colossus is coming to Rhodes; the German artist Gert Hof is designing a light sculpture between 60 and 100 meters tall that will allow ships to pass directly through its beam.
Emma Lazarus had no time for Greek sun-gods. Still in her teens, she wrote long, narrative poems in which Apollo is a sexual predator,
terrifying maidens who forfeit their humanity to escape the sun-god’s clutches. The panicked Daphne became a laurel; Clytie, a sunflower.
Even in her twenties, Lazarus was famous, and not by accident. She had a knack for gaining introductions, and the moxie to follow them up. At age 18, she enlisted Ralph Waldo Emerson (he was 65) to be her mentor, in a torrent of rapturous yet anxious letters. Long before she began writing polemics on Jewish immigrants and proto-Zionist anthems, she was writing poems and essays for the leading magazines of the day — Scribner’s, Century; her books were reviewed on two continents. Among her friends were the daughters of Emerson and Hawthorne; William and Henry James; the actress Charlotte Cushman; and every Friday night, while her relatives were enjoying Shabbat dinner, she hobnobbed with the bohemians of New York and Paris at the salon of Helena deKay and Richard Gilder, which was where, in the words of one regular, “every one who came to New York in those days, bearing a passport of intellectual worth, appeared to find his way.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
The poet James Merrill once told me he pictured the Colossus of Rhodes about to stride “from land to land”; otherwise, he explained, every ship passing beneath the Statue of Liberty’s legs would have had to rely on the decency of its sailors (and how decent could sailors of the third century BCE have been?).
Decency aside, the harbor mouth is probably too wide for a thirty-meter statue to have a foot on each shore. Gustave Eiffel, the engineer who designed the statue, took no chances; her feet are firmly planted, amid fragments of the broken chains of tyranny.
Emma Lazarus
Unlike many young women of wealthy families — think of “Pussy” Jones, the future Edith Wharton, who sailed to Europe at the age of four — Emma Lazarus first crossed the Atlantic in her thirties (1883), and she did so on business: to raise funds to aid the refugees from the pogroms of 1881-1882. After her father’s death in 1885, she made another, longer trip, relishing the chance, finally, to travel “from land to land”: England, France, Holland, Germany, Italy. She may have been pondering a move to Europe, as her friend Henry James had urged her to do, but it was not to be; in the summer of 1887, illness cut short her trip, and in the late fall, her life. She was 38.
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
Emma Lazarus loved the sea, both for its “roaring waters” and for its “low lisp of rippling tide.” Her family summered at the coast whenever possible: on Staten Island;
on the Long Island Sound at East Haven, Connecticut; or at Newport, Rhode Island, where they owned a house on tony Bellevue Avenue — but on the western (cheaper) side.
Until the xenophobic 1920s, when Congress enacted quotas to set the clock back to the immigration patterns of 1890, the “gates” to the United States were substantially open to immigrants. The glaring exception was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers and prevented those laborers who had left from returning. In Lazarus’s letters it goes unmentioned; startling that even a woman as involved in immigration as Lazarus should make no mention of the Chinese Exclusion Act — at least, none that I’ve found.
Despite the exclusion of the Chinese, between 1875 and 1885, the number of immigrants granted permanent residence rose by 75% to nearly 400,000. Ellis Island immigration video
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Anti-suffragist political cartoon
Women, as it happens, were not recognized in the ceremonies unveiling the Statue of Liberty. As the New York Times reported, “The members of the New-York State Woman Suffrage Association were the only people who looked with disfavor upon the grand pageant yesterday in celebration of Liberty’s unveiling. They had been denied a part in the ceremonies in Bedlow’s Island... To emphasize their disgust ...the women hired a boat for themselves and without asking anybody’s leave took up one of the most favorable positions for viewing the ceremonies on the island. ...Immediately after the veil had been drawn from before Liberty’s face Mrs [Lillie Devereux] Blake called an indignation meeting on the lower deck....declaring ‘that in erecting a statue of Liberty as a woman in a land where no woman has political liberty men have shown a delightful inconsistency which excites the wonder and admiration of the opposite sex....’” October 29, 1887.

Rep. Anthony Weiner tours the Statue of Liberty crown During his twenties, my gynecologist was a National Park Service ranger at the Statue of Liberty. He picked an odd moment to let me know he had gone “all the way up to the torch.” That’s no longer possible, at least not for the public.
On September 11, 2001, the Statue was summarily closed, the island off limits to the public until December. In August 2004, when the Statue reopened, the public could no longer climb the staircase to the crown or torch; a glass ceiling was installed to permit gazing up into the massive apse of the Statue. After a fierce campaign by former Rep. Anthony Weiner, the public was once again permitted to go up to the crown on July 4, 2009. A YouTube video shows Weiner arriving by boat, climbing up to the crown, and admiring the view; if you listen closely, you can hear him receive a couple of texts.
Is the imprisoned lightning and her name
ner tamid
As far as the French were concerned, it was to have been the fierce light of reason, shining from that torch — Liberty Enlightening the World — but Emma Lazarus changed all that. Fires and lamps and lights and beams flare in her poems, lit both the Hebraic ner tamid (eternal light) and by the Promethian spark of defiance and emancipation. She liked to quote the proto-Zionist Mordecai in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, calling on her fellow Jews to light “the torch of visible community”; in her view, the symbol of enlightened Jewish nationalism had been made sacred by the ancient faith of a people. But, as she wrote in Epistle to the Hebrews, “we are none of us free if we are not all free.” The lightning, in her lifetime as in ours, was yet imprisoned and awaiting liberation.
The face of the Statue is said to have been based on that of Bartholdi’s mother. Motherhood was both a fascination and a source of anxiety to Lazarus, who lost her own mother, Esther, at age 25. Her dear friend, the painter Helena deKay Gilder, was frank about the trials of bearing and raising five children (they met while Helena was grieving her first child, who died in infancy); her friend Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, daughter of novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, was committed to “Somerville asylum” [now McLean Hospital] for postpartum depression. To Helena’s youngest son, the “boy Bacchus” Rodman Gilder, Emma wrote a tender lyric called “Child at the Bath.” Clearly Rodman would keep Emma Lazarus in mind; more than 50 years after her death, he wrote a book called Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World.
Face of the Statue
Beacon installation video
“Beacon” is the name of Ben Rubin’s new LED installation that tops the National Museum of American Jewish History in Pennsylvania. The architect, James Polshek, commissioned an homage to the Statue of Liberty, but Rubin built a shimmering, mobile grid based on the fluttering pages of the Talmud. I hear Emma saying “hmmmm,” or maybe that’s just me. Lazarus quoted the Talmud here and there for effect, but without knowing Hebrew or Aramaic, she herself did not find much light in it.
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
According to Google Ngrams, use of the word “world-wide” (or “worldwide”) has increased 6500% percent between 1883 and the year
2000. Emma Lazarus was always ahead of the curve.
The air-bridge harbor that twin cities frame.
New York and Jersey City
Gregory Eiselein, who edited Lazarus’s poems, thinks the “twin cities” are New York and Jersey City. If he’s right, they must be fraternal twins. Sisters, not twins, were the theme of the speeches dedicating the Statue — the sisterly Franco-American alliance.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
Storied; historical. She was one of those Jews about whom Yosef Yerushalmi wrote, “the faith of fallen Jews” is history. Her Torah was Heinrich Grätz’s History of the Jews. She went to history not for the pomp of nations and empires but for stories of how Jews endured — even thrived in — cycles of flourishing and persecution. And she read history to probe the culture and psyche of the persecutor, which she dared to dramatize in her monologue, “Guardian of the Red Disk” and other poems.
Heinrich Gratz's History of the Jews
Haymarket Riots Max Cavitch, one of the best readers of Lazarus’s poem, reminds us that when the Statue was dedicated in 1886, “the voice of liberty was, in
many respects, the voice of anarchy.” With the Haymarket Riots of the previous May clearly in mind, the organizers of the dedication ceremony shipped in a huge police presence: As the New York Times reported, “A battery of regulars was stationed near the water’s edge, and a detachment of infantry did guard duty on various parts of the island. Sentinels paced up and down the stand in front of the speakers’ platform,” on which President Cleveland, “his face wreathed with smiles,” was seated.
Anyone over the age of 65 who attended junior high school in the U.S. has heard Irving Berlin’s famous setting of the final part of the poem for the show Miss Liberty (1949) — “Giiiiiive me your tiiiiiiiired, your pooooooor.” I went on YouTube to find a version that Emma Lazarus might have liked, but in vain; they were all too slishy. She was probably a much better pianist than Berlin, who could only play in C major. Her father’s will mentions two pianos; perhaps she played duets with a sister — or a lover?
Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor video
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
Ward’s Island She saw the “huddled masses” at closer range than the Statue of Liberty ever did. After “plunging...recklessly and impulsively” into a defense of the Russian Jewish immigrants in the Century Magazine, Lazarus threw herself into
the refugees’ cause. She took the streetcar from her lavish home on 57th Street to work at the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society at 105 East Broadway, where she helped train refugees and she also taught English. She visited them in their squalid quarters on Ward’s Island and wrote an exposé about dirty water, overflowing garbage, unemployment, and lack of training for adults and education for children. A year after she died, her cousin, Sarah Lyons, inaugurated the new Emma Lazarus Club for Working Girls, where young Jewish immigrants could learn to type or sew — or recite Shakespeare.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Obama Whiffs History of Statue of Liberty video
President Obama recited part of “The New Colossus” in a speech on immigration in July 2010, flubbing a key line: Obama’s huddled masses yearned simply to “be” free, not to “breathe” free. Then, after a five-second pause, staring off to the right of the camera, he skipped the “wretched refuse” line altogether. Was he realizing he’d just misquoted the poem, misquoting it yet again? Was he deliberately omitting it, like those who chiseled an excerpt from the poem at the old International Arrivals terminal at JFK airport? Was he repressing it? Forgetting it? Who knows? (Maybe Michelle?)

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
She stole “tempest-tossed” from the First Witch in Macbeth Act I: Of a certain sea captain, the Witch vows, “Though his bark cannot be lost, Yet it shall be tempest-tossed.” Or did she steal it from Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet’s father calls his weeping, harrowed daughter “tempest-tossed”? No matter, Shakespeare himself probably stole it from the Geneva Bible’s Book of Acts, where Paul’s boat is “exceedingly tossed with a tempest.” Emma Lazarus was prone to sea-sickness; on the Alaska in 1883, she took to her stateroom and (perhaps with the benefit of a patent remedy for seasickness) “simply slept solidly for 48 hours.”
scene from Macbeth
Themes of Jewish “repatriation” in Palestine run through Lazarus’s poem, but in fact she was a measured, even reluctant Zionist. A fourth-generation American Jew, she felt that there was no need to ingather Jews from around the world. In the winter of 1882-3, she wrote that Jews would always be safe in four countries: the United States, France, Britain and Germany.
But the harder it was for her to get American Jews to open their pockets on behalf of refugees, the darker her sense of the prospects for the Ostjuden in the west. Within six weeks, she was advocating, passionately, for a Jewish state in Palestine. Theodore Herzl was still sitting in cafes in Vienna, thinking he’d be a better playwright than lawyer.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
What would a poem about emigration to America be without gold? Rumor had it that America was a land in which the streets, like the heavenly Jerusalem, were “paved with gold”; a more temperate El Dorado; the goldene medine. When Ferdinand de Lesseps, after using forced Egyptian labor to complete the Suez canal, spoke at the Statue’s dedication, the theme was progress and capitalism: “You like men who dare and who persevere. I say, like you, ’Go ahead!’” — which was exactly what de Lesseps
was trying — and failing — to do with a new canal in Panama. (Skeptics at the dedication grumbled that the Statue was merely a bribe for US assistance in Panama.) Only the torch of the Statue was covered with gold leaf; when it was first installed, the Statue was dark metallic brown and gray, more or less the color of the sea on an overcast day. Without color photographs it’s hard to know for sure, but it probably took until World War I for the Statue to turn green.
Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” was neither read nor mentioned at the dedication ceremony in 1886; she died the following year without knowing that it would ever be famous. In 1903, through the efforts of her friends, it was produced in bronze and affixed to the Statue, within the vestibule, though it only became famous when it was taken up by pro-immigrationists in the 1930s. As Cuban exile and writer Jose Marti wrote after witnessing the dedication ceremony in 1886, “a grain of poetry suffices to season a century.” Or more — provided we are still inclined to savor it.
The New Colossus placard

About The Book

Emma Lazarus book by Esther Schor Esther Schor — a poet and professor of English at Princeton University — is the author of Emma Lazarus, a biography published by Nextbook Press and Schocken Books as part of the Jewish Encounters book series. To learn more, and to buy the book, visit