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Natural Liberty: The Work of Emma Lazarus

Updated: May 4, 2020

By Tara Mae

Even when separated by circumstance, there are basic tenets that connect people to each other and the world at large: a fondness for common culture, a desire to seek beauty, a need for safe harbor. Poet Emma Lazarus’ writing explores these themes; it is both founded in her New York Jewish roots and universal to much of the human condition. Influenced by transcendental poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lazarus’ explorations and appreciation of the natural environment, evident in “Long Island Sound,” continuously evolved to recognize and reckon with man-made suffering. Arguably her best-known work, “The New Colossus,” is a culmination of her formal education, ties to home and place, and awareness of the plight of the “other.” She is immortalized through this poem, which is engraved on a bronze plaque in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. It is the hallmark of her composition and emblematic of her oeuvre. 

Born in 1849 to a prominent Jewish family whose New York heritage predated the American Revolution, Lazarus was educated by private tutors and expressed a passion for the written word from an early age. Lazarus’ poetry frequently features allusions to Greek history and culture, a reflection of the scope of her education and the breadth of her interest. As a teenager, she wrote poetry and translated German verse. Her father privately published her work in 1866, and in 1867, her collection of poetry, Poems and Translations, was commercially printed. Renowned poet, essayist, and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson was an appreciator of her work and she dedicated her next book of poetry to him. 

Lazarus shared his reverence for nature. Her imagery is evocative, engaging the senses through the narrative voice. Her descriptions immerse the audience into the world of the poem, who observe and experience it with her:

“Long Island Sound”

I see it as it looked one afternoon

In August,— by a fresh soft breeze o’erblown.

The swiftness of the tide, the light thereon,

A far-off sail, white as a crescent moon.

The shining waters with pale currents strewn,

The quiet fishing-smacks, the Eastern cove,

The semi-circle of its dark, green grove.

The luminous grasses, and the merry sun

In the grave sky; the sparkle far and wide,

Laughter of unseen children, cheerful chirp

Of crickets, and low lisp of rippling tide,

Light summer clouds fantastical as sleep

Changing unnoted while I gazed thereon.

All these fair sounds and sights I made my own.

She beckons the reader into her reminiscence and invites the individual to explore a single day at the beach. This visit is free from direct interference of other people: children are heard but not seen. Lazarus has claimed this natural respite as her own, while acknowledging that even as she stands still, the sea and the sky are changing.  

Her views were also shifting, expanding to more completely identify with her Jewish heritage and the plight of refugees driven from Russia by pogroms. Lazarus’ poetry was impacted by her developing understanding of religious persecution and the ensuing struggle of fleeing one homeland in search of another. Her advocacy on behalf of Jewish refugees and support for the idea of a Jewish homeland also informed her writing and raised her profile. Upon Lazarus’ return from a tour abroad, she was commissioned to write a piece to raise money for the pedestal of a statue that was to be erected in New York City. 

Although she initially declined the request, she later submitted “The New Colossus.” The sonnet exemplifies her journey as a scholar, artist, and activist and champions the journey of immigrants seeking better lives and opportunities. 

“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!”

By declaring that the Statue of Liberty is the new Colossus, Lazarus is asserting that it will be the new wonder of the world (the Greek Colossus of Rhodes is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.) Lady Liberty is constructed by human endeavor, but attune with nature; she directs the sea to carry the persecuted and downtrodden to her. Alone on an island flanked by the mouths of Hudson and East Rivers, she entreats countries to give such persons to her and invites them to a new community.  

Emma Lazarus died in 1887. In 1901, her friend Georgina Schuyler began a campaign to commemorate Lazarus and “The New Colossus.” The effort succeeded in 1903, when a bronze plaque with the text of the poem was mounted on the inner wall of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The text remains her most famous work, but is actually indicative of many of her life’s passions, topics she continuously explored and revisited. 

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