Skip to main content

Summary and Analysis of the Poem "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus: "The New Colossus"

"The New Colossus" was written in 1883 to help raise funds for the Statue of Liberty and is now engraved on the base, a permanent reminder of the statue's symbolism and Emma Lazarus's contribution to American culture.

According to some, Emma Lazarus was the first American to make any sense of this statue, being a gift from the country of France. Her traditional sonnet form seemed to spark recognition of the statue's primary role—a worldwide welcome to those seeking sanctuary.

Immigrants fleeing to America would see the torch-bearing giant as they approached New York and word quickly spread around the globe that here was no ordinary lady but a 'Mother of Exiles' offering a new life.

Emma Lazarus, woman, Jew and New Yorker, beautifully encapsulated the feelings of a nation in 14 lines. There's no doubt it still resonates. Her sonnet stands proud. This poem is still very relevant for these fragile times.

"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!”

Analysis of "The New Colossus"

"The New Colossus" is known as a Petrarchan sonnet, a form used by Petrarch, 14 lines long in total, made up of an octave, 8 lines, and a sestet, 6 lines.

The rhyme scheme is as follows: abbaabba + cdcdcd. All the rhymes are full, for example: fame/flame/name/frame and land/stand/hand/command.

There is often a 'turn' after eight lines, the final six lines being either a twist or development of the main theme. So, from line 9 to the end, following eight introductory lines, personification takes over—the statue comes alive and starts to speak.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

Overall, iambic pentameter prevails (five stresses per line within ten syllables) which sets a steady tempo for the reader, but watch out for the first line - it opens with a trochee which alters the emphasis. And a spondee (double stress) ends the line:

Not like / the bra / zen gi / ant of / Greek fame,

whilst enjambment occurs at lines 3,4,5,6,7 and 9 allowing a flow into the following punctuated line.

Giving a voice to the Mother of Exiles reinforces the idea that those arriving in America for the first time are personally welcomed, each and every one.

Line-by-Line Analysis

Line 1 - the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, reputedly stood across the harbor entrance at the island of Rhodes, and was a statue of the Sun god Helios, a symbol of freedom.

Line 2 - this statue is said to have been 100 feet high and straddled across the entrance.

Line 3 - in contrast to the original Colossus, the new one stands at the gates—note the imagery here of waves washing the gates as sunset bathes in a golden light.

Line 4 - and the statue will be that of a great woman holding a beacon of light.

Line 5 - such a powerful, natural energy source—enough to light up the sky.

Line 6-8 - she will protect and nurture, her inviting warmth will spread across the world and she will look after all who arrive. The air-bridge is likely to be the Brooklyn Bridge, the two cities New York and Jersey.

Line 9-14 - she wants the old countries to be proud of their history but those desperate immigrants fleeing turmoil and poverty she will look after, give them a home and shelter; their futures will be assured. Wretched refuse is a term that reflects the sense of waste of human life. Note the spelling of tost in tempest-tost (occurs in MacBeth, Act1, scene3) but it can also be spelled tossed—tempest-tossed—hit by storms.

Further Analysis

Internal rhymes and other poetic devices add to the texture and richness of this sonnet. For example, note the alliteration and assonance in line 3:

. . . sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

and again in line 5:

Is the imprisoned lightning,

and line 7:

Glows world-wide welcome;

For the reader and listener, this all helps to maintain interest in sound and meaning. There is a special music created in lines 11 and 12:

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

The iambics and the contrasting vowel sounds combine and intertwine to create a sort of wave-like motion, with echoes.

This is a sonnet of fire and water, elementally rich, but the dominant theme is that of light, symbolised in the lamp and flame, which brings golden opportunities and the possibility of a new start in life.

We have to remember that this poem was written in 1883 when America was young, fresh and in need of new life-blood from all over the world. America opened her doors to those who were shunned by their home countries, to those who wanted a better life.

Since the engraving of The New Colossus, America has absorbed millions of immigrants and is still attracting many who seek the dream. The message in this well-constructed sonnet is positive and welcoming, but what does the future hold for the Mother of Exiles?


© 2016 Andrew Spacey