Poetry Friday: Independence Day with Emma Lazarus

For this Poetry Friday, which falls on a holiday here in the States—and not just any holiday, but the most fireworks-laden and brass-band-in-the-park bedecked of them all, Independence Day—I’m keeping it short and sweet.  There are a lot of hymns to patriotism and ruminations on America in poetic form, but one sonnet seems to me just the right one to ponder a little as we prepare for cookouts and parades and sparklers lighting up the night.  This is “The New Colossus”, by Emma Lazarus, published in 1883:

"Liberty Enlightening the World", perhaps better known these days as "The Statue of Liberty"

“Liberty Enlightening the World”, perhaps better known these days as “The Statue of Liberty”

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!”

Lazarus wrote this little poem as part of a fund-raising effort in connection with the impending arrival of an immense statue, a gift from the French government, Bartholdi’s “La Liberté éclairant le monde” (or “Liberty enlightening the world”).  This little sonnet in some ways reshapes American identity, in that it changes the character of the lady who stands in New York’s harbor, and in doing so changes something important about America’s symbolism about itself.  As conceived, the statue was a monument to the American Revolution, which had only succeeded with the support of the French—it was an ode to American greatness, to achievement.  And then along comes Emma Lazarus to tell us we misunderstand the work, before it is even completed and standing on American soil.

“Not”, she begins—“Not”, because before we can hear her real voice we must unhear the misconceptions we have already taken on board—“Not like the brazen giant”, the Colossus of Rhodes, this will be no statue to honor military triumph, she tells us.  She sees the statue not as an emblem held aloft from the American shore: if she did, surely Lazarus would describe Liberty as a sunrise figure, no?  Her torch held aloft at the eastern edge of the continent?  But Lazarus sees her at the “sunset gates”, she sees her from the Old World, from the boats that came by the hundreds, the refugees teeming across the Atlantic by the thousands, peering and squinting into the sunset to see that torch held aloft that proclaimed a journey’s end, and a new beginning.  An apocalyptic figure, Liberty is mighty, she cages lightning for a beacon, and yet most importantly, her name is no warrior’s slogan, no epithet worn by a hero of battle.  She is Mother of Exiles.  The torch does not drive off the foe—it welcomes the world.  Her eyes are not piercing or stern, but mild.  She is a gentle god, a pillar of strength that shields more than it threatens, that guards more than it goads.

And then Lazarus executes the turn from octet (first 8 lines) to sestet (last 6) perfectly—we no longer hear the poet, but now simply the voice of Liberty herself.  She rejects all that glitters, the “storied pomp” of the Old World, the shimmering jewels on the crowned heads of a Europe then in its absolute ascendancy, a handful of empires who then held under subjection most of the surface of the Earth.  “Give me your tired,” she says, send me those you cannot abide and who cannot abide you.  Turn out those who have found emptiness with you, that they will find plenty with me.  Cast out the weak that I may teach them to be strong.  She does not glamourize them—they are “huddled masses”, “wretched refuse”, “homeless”.  It will not matter.  If they enter under her lamp they will find a home.  You know these words, of course.  Years later, some of them were carved on a plaque that can be seen by all who visit Liberty in New York.  She is forever the exiles’ mother, the welcomer of the “tempest-tost”—and because she is so fully identified with the United States, in a way we will wear that badge, as well, forever until the statue crumbles into the harbor.

We can be cynical, of course, and undercut the poem’s naivete.  The Land of Opportunity denied opportunity to many.  Even as many immigrants found success here, many other found failure—some sank into inescapable poverty here, others returned broken to the poverty they had left at home.  Liberty was a welcome sight but for some arrivals, her face would be the last welcoming one they would see for some time.  And yet…

And yet what is today for if not for appealing to the better angels of our nature?  If America has not always lived up to the promise in Lazarus’s poem, surely that promise was kept for many, at least—among them a butcher from Schleswig-Holstein and a tailor from central Sweden, who found homes here and enough success to raise families and see grandchildren born, not knowing that the years would lead, among other places, to me sitting here now writing this.  Lazarus’s sonnet can inspire us as well as disappoint us; it can call us to live out our duty to the world’s bedraggled.  These sentiments are not wholly welcome to all Americans these days, and of course they never really were universally American sentiments.  We have always had anti-immigrant sentiment, though I fear our current predicament is deeper and more pernicious than most of what’s preceded it.  The news is full of talk, much of it by people who would call themselves patriots, but in whose anti-immigrant phrases and attitudes I find not very much to call “American” in the way that Liberty herself is American.  I am sad for them, and about them, but I do not give up on them.

Today, let them come to Liberty Island to sit at the feet of Bartholdi’s masterpiece.  Let them read the words of Lazarus and ask themselves what it would mean for us to embrace our identity as the Mother of Exiles, the home of the world’s cast-offs.  Let them look into our country’s past and see not just rich men signing a Declaration, but the generations of the poor and the homeless who passed beneath that torch, had their papers stamped at Ellis Island, and declared a kind of personal independence from all that had held them down back home, and all they had left behind.  This land belongs to them, too, and to the many who have not yet come to our shores, but for whom Lady Liberty will someday mark a turning point in their lives.  So today I honor them all, past, present, and future, who have come here with nothing: may America richly reward you for placing your hopes in her hands.


One comment on “Poetry Friday: Independence Day with Emma Lazarus

  1. Donna says:

    Just an excellent post. Thank you.

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