On November 2, 1883, poet and philanthropist Emma Lazarus wrote the verse “The New Colossus,” which, two decades later, in 1903, was engraved and installed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, in Manhattan Harbor.
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Lazarus (1849-1887), was born into a New York Jewish family of Portuguese Sephardic descent; her father, Moses Lazarus, was a prosperous sugar merchant. Her artistic sensibility was cultivated by her family and by the age of 17, she had already published a book of poetry privately. Soon thereafter, she met writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who remained a friend and mentor until his death in 1882.
Lazarus became involved in charitable work helping Jewish immigrants resettle in New York and was particularly affected by the suffering of Russian Jews in the pogroms. She volunteered at Wards Island, a station for immigrant absorption in New York Harbor, helped establish the Hebrew Technical Institute and assisted with the organization of Jewish agricultural colonies in other parts of the United States. She wrote frequently on Jewish topics (her 1882 book of poetry was called “Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death and Other Poems”), and was an avid supporter of Zionism.
In the 1870s, the joint French-American project that became the Statue of Liberty got underway.The people of France offered to provide a statue to commemorate a century of friendship between the two nations and the United States pledged to provide the site for the artwork as well as its pedestal. In fact, fundraising in earnest only began in 1882. The following year, Lazarus was asked to participate in an art and literary auction to raise money for the project, for which she wrote the sonnet “The New Colossus,” whose first stanza refers to the planned statue in the harbor as “A mighty woman with a torch her name/ Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand/ Glows world-wide welcome.”
The poem was chosen to appear in the “Catalogue of the Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition at the National Academy of Design” that accompanied the auction and later was published in both the New York World and the New York Times. Yet when the Statute of Liberty was finally dedicated in 1886, “The New Colossus” did not appear at the site.
Only in 1901, 17 years after the death of Emma Lazarus, did a friend of hers, Georgina Schuyler, come upon the poem in a bookshop and proposed that it be integrated into the exhibition at Bedloe’s Island (today, Liberty Island). Two years later, a plate engraved with the poem was installed inside the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, where it is still on display today.
The 14 lines of the poem give voice to the sentiments that the Statue of Liberty – and the moment of arrival in the United States in general – has inspired among tens of millions of people over more than a century. It reads as follows:
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!"