The New Colossus
Digital History ID 1292
A gift from France in 1884, the Statue of Liberty was originally meant to symbolize the friendship and the commitment to liberty shared by the French and American peoples. But for millions of immigrants it has been a beacon of freedom and opportunity.
The conception of the Statue of Liberty as welcome for immigrants and refugees "yearning to breathe free" received powerful expression in a poem by Emma Lazarus. Called "The New Colossus," the poem's title refers to the Colossus of Rhodes, a giant bronze statue of the sun god Helios that stood near the harbor of the Greek island of Rhodes.
The words inscribed on a plaque affixed to the Statue of Liberty were written by Emma Lazarus. Born to a privileged New York City family, she aspired to be a writer. As a young woman, she wrote sentimental love poems and translated the works of the French author Victor Hugo and the German writers Heinrich Heine and Johann von Goethe. She also corresponded with two of America's greatest poets, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
In 1881 and 1882, Cossack soldiers destroyed Jewish homes and synogogues and forced thousands of Russian Jews to flee. One of Lazarus's acquaintances took took her to visit "the wretched...victims of Russian barbariety." This firsthand glimpse of refugees attacks inspired Lazarus, who was Jewish, to become an ardent defender of Jews fleeing antisemitism in czarist Russia. She founded a society to help Jewish exiles resettle in Palestine.
France was about to present the United States with the Statue of Liberty. To raise money for a pedestal for the statute, an auction of works by famous writers was held. Among those who contributed works were Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Lazarus also contributed a poem, which she called "The New Colossus.
Lazarus did not live long enough to see her poem affixed to the Statue. She died of cancer just a year after writing her famous poem, at the age of 38.
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!"
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