By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Emma Lazarus is most famous for writing this one poem, ‘The New Colossus’, which adorns the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Written in 1883, the poem helped to shape the popular idea of the Statue of Liberty as a welcoming mother, and of America as the great nation of immigrants.
This view was helped by the fact that the Statue was the first great US landmark that immigrants arriving in the United States would see.
The arrival of the Statue of Liberty in the United States from France in 1886 was a huge national occasion: it is thought to have inspired the very first ticker-tape parade. Lazarus’ poem didn’t enjoy quite the same level of acclaim. Indeed, it was hardly read during her lifetime. ‘The New Colossus’ was commissioned to help raise money for the statue’s construction, but it was only after her death, in 1887, that the poem was published.
But it would not be until 1945 that the poem would achieve widespread fame, when it was inscribed over the entrance to the Statue of Liberty. Not only this, but France intended for the Statue of Liberty to be propaganda, with the light-bearing female personification of Liberty – that French Revolutionary watchword – symbolising a beacon of enlightenment for those European countries still living under tyranny.
But Lazarus twisted this propagandistic intention, and her poem ensured that the Statue of Liberty would instead be viewed as a beacon of welcome for immigrants leaving their European mother countries, for the new ‘Mother of Exiles’.
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.
Lazarus’ poem takes the form of a Petrarchan sonnet rhymed abbaabba cdcdcd. As her title makes clear, the Statue of Liberty is a ‘new colossus’; Lazarus’ title contrasts this modern statue with the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. According to a misconception popularised in the Middle Ages, the Colossus straddled the harbour and thus, like the Statue of Liberty, was one of the first things to greet incoming travellers.
In fact, the Colossus didn’t stand astride the harbour, but this myth helps Lazarus to contrast the ‘brazen’ male statue of the Greek Colossus (‘brazen’ carries a double meaning: the statue was literally covered in brass plates, but it is also boldly standing astride the water like a conqueror) with the more welcoming female Statue of Liberty.
This welcoming nature is also contained within the epithet for the statue, ‘Mother of Exiles’: this new colossus will be a nurturing, caring figure, a beacon of support, for those who have been exiled from their own countries elsewhere in the world. We’re a long way from the ‘conquering’ manspreading of the Greek Colossus.
Critics disagree over the meaning of the eighth line, ‘The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.’ Carol Rumens has suggested that it refers to the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in the year the poem was written, and that the cities referred to, therefore, are Brooklyn and New York as separate settlements.
‘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!’
The sestet, or six-line stanza which concludes the poem, gives the Statue of Liberty a voice, imagining its ‘silent lips’ addressing the arriving immigrants and welcoming them to the land of the free. Lazarus’ phrase ‘the huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ has become familiar to those who haven’t read the poem, or even heard of it. The line is indelibly associated with the Statue of Liberty itself.
The poem is full of contrasts: images of land/sea, fire/water, light/dark, freedom/imprisonment can be found within this short sonnet. But perhaps, in the last analysis, the most important contrast in Lazarus’ poem is between old and new, specifically the old colossus and the new one, and, by extension, the Old World with the New World of America.
‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries the new colossus. The ancient lands of Europe can keep their history; America, the new land of the free, offers a new start for anybody in search of one.
Continue to explore the world of poetry with these classic poems by women, these great sonnets by female poets, and our pick of the best short American poems. For more classic American poetry, see our analysis of Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.