The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus

Here is an analysis of Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus, which is a sonnet that has inspired countless of Americans. In 1903, a copy of Lazarus’ poem was engraved on a bronze plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus wrote the poem after the Statue of Liberty Committee asked her to write something about the statue. Lazarus, a native of New York City, published a collection of poetry when she was still a teenager. In addition to writing poetry, Lazarus also enjoyed reading British and American literature, and she also wrote many articles on varying topics. Sadly, Lazarus died in 1887, sixteen years before her most famous poem was engraved on the Statue of Liberty.

 

The New Colossus Summary

In short form, this is a poem that was inspired by the Statue of Liberty. In the poem, Lazarus depicts the Statue of Liberty as a woman who is welcoming all of those who need a home, and she names her the Mother of Exiles. She holds her torch in order to light the way of all of those who are seeking shelter in a new land. Lady Liberty will not turn anyone away: she will accept the tired and poor and anyone else who needs to be free.

 

Breakdown Analysis of The New Colossus

One cannot analyse this poem without first looking at its title, which refers to the statue of the Greek god Helios that once stood at the harbor in Rhodes, Greece, over two thousand years ago. The title also claims that the Statue of Liberty is a replacement of sorts for the old Greek statue; the poet does this by including the word “new” in the title. Lazarus makes mention of the ancient statue in the first and second lines of the poem. She writes, “Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,/With conquering limbs astride from land to land…”

Next, Lazarus’ The New Colossus is an example of a Petrarchan sonnet. The poem is fourteen lines long, and the first eight lines, called an octave, have the rhyme scheme abbaabba. The last six lines, called a sestet, have a rhyme scheme of cdcdcd.

As stated earlier, the speaker of the poem, presumably Lazarus, compares the Statute of Liberty to the Colossus. She says that unlike the giant statute the Greeks made, America’s statue will be of “A mighty woman with a torch,/ whose flame is the imprisoned lightning…” Also in these lines, she stresses that the Statue of Liberty will be welcoming, whereas the Colossus was meant to intimidate those who reached Greece’s shores. In addition, Lazarus personifies the statue, giving her the ability to “welcome” and “command.”

In lines five and six, Lazarus creates a new name for the Statue of Liberty: “…and her name/Mother of Exiles.” Since an exile is someone who is forced to leave their homeland, Lazarus is explaining that Lady Liberty will not only welcome those exiles, but she will also be mother-like to them, comforting and supporting them like every good mother does. She extends this thought into the next line, stating that the hand holding the torch “glows world-wide welcome.” In other words, her torch is lighting the way for all to see.

At the end of line seven, Lazarus writes, “…her mild eyes command/The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.” There has been much discussion behind this. Many people believe the twin cities the statute is commanding are New York City and Brooklyn, but others believe the cities could be New York City and Jersey City, New York’s neighbor across the river.

The last six lines of the poem are the most famous, and in these lines, the Statute of Liberty is talking “with silent lips.” She says,

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.

In these lines, the new Colossus is telling the world to give her all of the people who are longing for freedom, regardless of how they are—tired or poor, it makes no difference. She has lifted her light beside the door to let them all in.

 

Historical Context

Emma Lazarus wrote The New Colossus in 1883, but she did not live to see it engraved on the Statute of Liberty in 1903. Lazarus was a proponent of immigration, and this poem, her most famous, is a testament to her beliefs on refugees and immigrants. While it was not France’s intention for the Statue of Liberty to become a symbol of welcoming immigrants to a new land, the amount of immigrants pouring into Ellis Island put a change to that: the statute was often one of the first sights they saw as they entered the harbor. Today, the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom and the pursuit of happiness, and while Lazarus did not live a very long life, her poem was withstood the test of time and remains one of the most significant works in American poetry.

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2 Comments

  1. Ma October 10, 2017
    • mm Lee-James Bovey October 13, 2017

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