Skip to main content
Updated date:

Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus

Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty

Introduction and Text of "The New Colossus"

Designed by sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the famed statue, whose full title is "The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World," was a gift from France to the United States in recognition of the freedom and individual liberty, on which the USA was being founded. In Paris July 4, 1884, the statue was ceremonially presented to the American ambassador to France. In America, the statue was dedicated on October 28, 1886 and then designated as a National Monument in 1924.

After receiving the statue and reassembling it in the USA, the Americans realized that a problem was presenting itself. The statue had no pedestal on which to stand. Thus, a committee formed to raise funds to procure a pedestal. Poet Emma Lazarus was commissioned to write a poem to help raise funds for the project. Lazarus penned her Petrarchan sonnet, "The New Colossus." In 1903, sixteen years after the death of the poet, her sonnet was engraved on a bronze plaque and placed on the statue’s pedestal.

Lazarus’ poem is an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet with an octave and sestet and the traditional rime scheme of ABBAABBA CDCDCD. The octave feature two traditional quatrains, while the sestet sections into two tercets.

In the octave, the speaker of the poem contrasts this new statue with the Colossus of Rhodes: instead of a "brazen giant" this new colossus is "[a] mighty woman" Instead of a conqueror, this "Mother of Exiles" is a nurturer.

In the sestet, the "Mother of Exiles" speaks "with silent lips" the widely quoted lines: "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Like a silent, loving mother, the statue opens her arms to the outcasts of the world, and she lifts her light to offer guidance as they take their steps toward their new home.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Reading of Lazarus' "The New Colossus"

The 1903 bronze plaque located in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

The 1903 bronze plaque located in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

Commentary

The Statue of Liberty was gift from France, offered the USA to celebrate the institutions in the New World that offered individual freedom to those were willing participate in America’s grand experiment in liberty.

First Quatrain: A Woman with a Torch

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

The Colossus of Rhodes has long been considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. Only in legend, however, did it stand "land to land." It has been determined that the physics of such a huge statue renders that image an impossibility. Interestingly, the Colossus of Rhodes was also erected as a monument to freedom, exactly the same purpose of the Statue of Liberty.

The Colossus of Rhodes is also not a "man," as Lazarus poem might be interpreted to imply, but rather was a symbol of the sun god, Helios, his masculine features notwithstanding. Upon close examination of "Lady Liberty," one is hard put to delineate any "feminine" qualities of the statue. And some pundits have suggested that the model for the statue was the brother of the sculptor.

Read More From Owlcation

Nevertheless, the image of a gentility that is mostly considered "feminine" prevails regarding the statue, and citizens world-wide have come to see the statue with the "mind's eye,"—even perhaps the "heart's eye"—rather than the physical eyes that clearly detect no sign of femininity in the sculpture.

Amid these qualifications and possible controversies, the speaker of the poem has placed this "Lady," who is a "mighty woman," lifting a torch on "our sea-washed, sunset gate," standing with that torch yielding forth that famous flame.

Second Quatrain: Her Welcoming Stance

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.

From that famous torch flames forth that "imprisoned lightning." Of course, the flame must be "lightning," without which the drama and profundity of her message of freedom would lack intensity. And of course, this woman, this Lady Liberty, has a magnificent name; she is the "Mother of Exiles." She beckons those in need with a "world-wide welcome."

Lady Liberty stands between New York City and Brooklyn in the New York Harbor. Until 1898, when those two were consolidated into a single unit, NYC and Brooklyn were considered two or "twin cities."

First Tercet: Lady Liberty Speaks

“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 speaker then allows Lady Liberty to speak; she opens by comparing the exceptional nation over which she watches to "ancient lands" that profess "storied pomp!" And from her "silent lips," she sends forth the message that has become widely quoted. Lady Liberty announces to the world that all those other lands drenched in pompous tales and exploits yet featuring citizens who huddle together and yearn for freedom can send those "tired" "poor" folks to her.

Second Tercet: A Bright Door

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Lady Liberty's silent lips continue to describe the kinds of folks whom she will welcome with her lifted torch of freedom. Be they "wretched refuse," "homeless," or "tempest-tost," they are welcome to these wide-ranging shores. The Lady of freedom will continue to "lift [her] lamp" and will offer a "golden door" through which those seeking freedom and a better way of life may enter.

Sources

Colossus of Rhodes

Colossus of Rhodes

Colossus of Rhodes 2

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles