This poem is inscribed on the base of The Statue of Liberty.


Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)

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!"
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North American school children and probably in most of the world, are exposed at one time or another to the words included as part of Bartholdi's statue of Liberty Enlightening the World:
    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!

Originally the plaque of the last five lines of the poem was installed inside the pedestal building on a second-story landing. It went largely unnoticed, until a Yugoslavian-American journalist from the 1930’s and 40’s Louis Adamic an immigration enthusiast, began using parts of the verses in almost everything he wrote about the dilemma of Eastern European Jewry. These writings brought the poem into national consciousness, and in 1945, the tablet was moved to the main entrance of the Statue of Liberty, where visitors see it today.

    (B)efore the plaque was cast…Samuel Ward Gray, head of the American branch of Baring Brothers Bank, almost changed the course of history. In a letter …. Gray objected to the terms "huddled masses" and "wretched refuse." To Gray, huddled masses suggested that most immigrants were slum dwellers of great European cities, but such people were not "what America has received from Europe, nor, above all, what she invites."

    Gray cited America's Irish, Scandinavian and German immigrants as examples of immigrants who came from predominantly rural backgrounds. Jews were the exception, since they were "town livers" and could thus be called huddled masses, but Gray saw the Jews who emigrated not as wretched refuse but the "strong and able." To correct Lazarus' error, Gray offered substitute lines: "your stirring myriad, that yearn to breathe free/But find no place upon your teeming shore."

Never mind that the Colossus didn't straddle anything, the point is clear enough: America meant to reclaim the grandeur of the ancient world. While there is no record of a response to Gray, they must have held firm against any changes. Between 1820 and 1920, approximately 34 million persons immigrated to the United States, most of them becoming permanent citizens. For many of these newcomers, their first glimpse of America was the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. By World War I, Lady Liberty was firmly established as an American icon and it was soon after the war my maternal grandparents emigrated from Ireland passing through the nearby Ellis Island. I like to believe the sun was shining brightly as a warm sea breeze wafted through Grandmother’s fine auburn hair as she traveled westward through the sunset gates, passing Liberty’s uplifted lamp. We were frequently treated to many stories of being shaved from head to toe as part of the delousing as a part of their arrival to Ellis Island. No doubt Liberty is a source of hope and inspiration to countless immigrants entering the United States and was one of the first things they laid eyes upon when they reached the United States at least that is the image that comes to mind when I hear this piece.

An Englishman wrote this letter to his wife:

    It is a foolish idea that some people have, that there too many people come here, it is quite the reverse; there was more than 1000 emigrants came in the day after I landed, and there is four ships have arrived since with emigrants. But there is plenty of room yet, and will for a thousand years to come.

    My dear Sukey, all that I want now is to see you, and the dear children here, and then I shall be happy, and not before. You know very well that I should not have left you behind me, if I had money to have took you with me. It was sore against me to do it. But I do not repent of coming, for you know that there was nothing but poverty before me, and to see you and the dear children want was what I could not bear. I would rather cross the Atlantic ten times than hear my children cry for victuals once. Now, my dear, if you can get the Parish to pay for your passage, come directly; for I have not a doubt in my mind I shall be able to keep you in credit. You will find a few inconveniences in crossing the Atlantic, but it will not be long, and when that is over, all is over, for I know that you will like America.

    America is not like England, for here no man thinks himself your superior... This is a country where a man can stand as a man, and where he can enjoy the fruits of his own exertions, with rational liberty to its fullest extent. (Rhoda Hoff, America's Immigrants: Adventures in Eyewitness History, p. 24).

The Statue of Liberty exceeded its creators’ dreams and became the dream of generations. America was not prepared for the masses of immigrants it would soon host, just as the country was unprepared for the Statue that would welcome them. It took the grassroots efforts of Joseph Pulitzer and his New York World to generate enough money; even sent in the form of single dollar bill, to complete the pedestal.

The copper and iron colossal is the work of French sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi. Richard Morris Hunt was the architect of the base. Gustave Eiffel the famous engineer who later constructed the Eiffel Tower in Paris, built the structure of the statue so that it would be strong enough to withstand the elements of nature. Given by the French people to the US to commemorate the centennial of American independence. The proud woman faces Europe and in particular France, in flowing robes and spiked crown holding a torch aloft with her right arm and carries in her right arm a book inscribed July 4,1776; at her feet lay broken chains of slavery. Here are some more interesting facts:

  • Height: 305 feet (93 m). 354 steps lead from the entrance to the crown.
  • The seven rays of Lady Liberty's crown represent the seven seas and seven continents.
  • The pedestal is set within the walls of an army fort. It was the largest concrete mass ever poured.
  • There are 25 windows in the crown, which symbolize 25 gemstones found on the earth.
Weighing an impressive 204 metric tons, formed of copper sheets riveted to an iron framework and bolted to a star shaped stone the work was dedicated on October 28, 1886 by President Grover Cleveland who said that her light would, "pierce the darkness of man's ignorance and oppression." Both the statue and Ellis Island were declared a national monument in 1924.

This grand and lasting gesture of international friendship has become the world symbol of freedom in the hearts and imaginations of thousand of immigrants arriving in the United States. In 1903 Lazerus' Italian sonnet was placed on a tablet in the main entrance to the pedestal. It begins with an undercurrent of tensions between ancient and modern; as Bertholdi's statue is juxtaposed with the Colossus of Rhodes, a monolithic representation from ancient times that is said to have stood astride the entrance to the harbor of the Greek city of Rhodes. Rhodes is a chief island of the Dodecanese in the Aegean. Prosperous and politically powerful Rhodes attained great heights during the third and second centuries BC. A huge bronze statue of the sun god Helios, it was masculine and warlike; Colossus was meant to scare invaders away. Chares of Lindus (fl. 3d cent. BC) was the creator and Pliny listed it as one of ancient marvels in his Seven Wonders of the World. An earthquake destroyed it in 224 B.C. The statue snapped at the knees and collapsed, according to the account preserved by Byzantine chronicler Cedrinos (11th century), "it was sold for scrap to a Jewish merchant, who required 900 camels to carry it away."

Lazarus’ thesis is that Liberty, in welcoming the oppressed peoples of the world, as the alliterated and real wonder of a’ world-wide welcome'. James Russell Lowell often described as a fastidious critic wrote her, "your sonnet gives its subject a raison d'etre;" a reason for being which it had previously lacked. The line The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame, refer to New York and Brooklyn linked by the Brooklyn Bridge. They weren’t consolidated with the other boroughs until 1898. The poetry resonates with many conflicting identities and ideals that Lazarus dealt with in her own life. She personifies Lady Liberty by invoking the ancient ideals of Greece and the old traditions of storied pomp a transformation occurs from brazen giant into a Mother of Exiles; a New Colossus with commanding eyes who maintains both Greek majesty, beauty and defiance standing alone as a beacon to the world speaking compassion with silent lips.

    Why do I say that a poem part of which is known by millions and which stirs the hearts and imaginations of countless people who never heard of Emma Lazarus is less than competent? It is because it was intended to be a persuasive piece, an assertion of what Lazarus wanted the statue to come to mean. Political poetry rarely works. Even when the sentiments are adopted -- and I don't think Lazarus's ever have been -- the assertion is always something less than the principle. As Stanley Kunitz says, "Beware of manifestos: they are the death of poetry."

    Bob Blair:
    http://www.geocities.com/~spanoudi/poems/

While modern scholars have found this poem to have a condescending air, for my grandparents and their many friends they made here in America, Ireland, as well as most of Europe at that time, meant poverty and persecution, America meant democracy and opportunity. "Other lands," observed Henry Sienkiewicz, a Polish émigré, "grant only asylum; this land recognizes the immigrant as a son and grants him rights."

The French people raised funds by popular subscription to pay for the statute. The American people raised funds to pay for the pedestal and the cost of erecting the statue. Discovered tucked into a small portfolio of poems written in 1883 her words did not achieve immortality overnight. Lazarus wrote the piece as part of the American fund raising efforts to be auctioned at the Art Loan Fund Exhibition in Aid of the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund for the Statue of Liberty. Along with the poem was the author’s note, "Written in aid of Bartholdi Pedestal Fund, 1883." Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and others submitted original manuscripts, but the highest bid of $1,500 was received for Emma’s sonnet.

Bartholdi did indeed created the Statue of Liberty with the well-known Colossus in mind. Some speculate it was as political propaganda for France at first intended to be a path of enlightenment for the countries of Europe still battling tyranny and oppression. However, Lazarus turned his idea on its head and with her simple sonnet at its base. Lady Freedom, became a symbol of welcome for thousands of European immigrants. This New Colossus not only meant freedom from the aristocracy of Britain that led American colonists to the Revolutionary War. Liberty also meant freedom to come to the United States and create a new life without religious and ethnic persecution.

    Lazarus deeply felt the persecution of the Jews in Russia in the 1880s. That, and her translation of Heinrich Heine, the German Jew, in 1881 and her own Songs of a Semite: the Dance to Death and Other Poems in 1882, turned her away from the Christian environment of her immediate family and into her Jewish roots. She called for the re-creation of a Jewish homeland that year. She went overseas, visiting European writers and cities, first in 1883 and then from May 1885 to September 1887, and creating the Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews. She also did charitable work at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. ."

    Selected Poetry of Emma Lazarus :
    www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/authors/lazarus.html

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) was born in New York City to a wealthy Jewish sugar manufacturer and grew up in era of the American Civil War. Her sonnet expresses her faith in the United States as a haven for the oppressed. Her first work was published in 1867, Poems and Translations. With the persecution of Russian Jews in the early 1880’s Lazarus became an ardent Zionist resulting in the publication of the deeply powerful Songs of a Semite. By the age of 34 she began a study of Hebrew Yiddish, and German history and culture. Known as a woman of immense intelligence, Emma published articles in the well-known newspapers and journals. In 1881, a wave of anti-Semitism swept across Russia. Soldiers burned homes and synagogues destroying Jewish districts. Thousands of Jews set sail for America. Moved by the plight of Jews and other victims of persecution in Europe, she was encouraged to write in the context of her beloved Jewish immigrants and a few days later, she had completed The New Colossus. Quickly forgotten, Emma Lazarus would not live to understand the full impact of what she had written. She died at the age of 38 from Hodgkin's Disease after visiting France and it wasn’t until seven years after the poet's death that the sonnet was incorporated into the statue when her friend Georgina Schuyler has it installed on Liberty. The American Jewish Historical Society houses the original handwritten sonnet.

Sources:

Blair, Bob:
http://www.geocities.com/~spanoudi/poems/

Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Lazarus, Emma," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

Emma Lazarus :
www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/authors/lazarus.html

Jewish Women's Archive. "JWA - Emma Lazarus - Introduction.":
http://www.jwa.org/exhibits/wov/lazarus/index.html (July 20, 2003).

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