The New Colossus
Emma Lazarus, 1849 - 1887
Emma Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" in 1883 for an art auction "In Aid of the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund." While France had provided the statue itself, American fundraising efforts like these paid for the Statue of Liberty's pedestal. In 1903, sixteen years after her death, Lazarus' sonnet was engraved on a plaque and placed in the pedestal as a memorial.
The famous sonnet echoes many of the conflicting identities and ideals Lazarus dealt with in her own life. As an American author, she felt that ancient lands could keep their old traditions and "storied pomp." At the same time, Lazarus invoked her ancient Greek ideals by transforming the "brazen giant " into a "Mother of Exiles" who retains Greek majesty, beauty and defiance as a new Colossus. The compassion of the lines "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" welcomes the tired immigrants, but the following image of the "wretched refuse of your teeming shore" hints at the condescension these refugees were to suffer. And while this Mother of Exiles' eyes command, and she stands alone beacon to all the world, she is still an ambiguous figure of power, speaking only with "silent lips."
Struggling beneath the poem's surface, these tensions—between ancient and modern, Jew and American, voice and silence, freedom and oppression—give Emma Lazarus's work meaning and power. As James Russell Lowell wrote, her " sonnet gives its subject a raison d'etre."
- See the analysis of the "New Colossus" in Diane Lichtenstein, Writing Their Nations: The Tradition of Nineteenth-Century American Jewish Women Writers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).
- For Lowell's quote see his letter to Lazarus, 17 December 1883, Letters to Emma Lazarus in the Columbia University Library, ed. Ralph L. Rusk (New York: New York Public Library, 1949) 74.