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Colossal Ode

Without Emma Lazarus' timeless poem, Lady Liberty would be just another statue

"The New Colossus" is a sonnet in the manner of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s masterly "Ozymandias," which describes the ruins of a grandiose monument in Egypt built by an ancient emperor to memorialize his imperial self. The monument's legend reads: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. / Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair." The triumphant epitaph is mocked in the wreckage and the "lone and level" desert sands stretching out on all sides around it.

Where Shelley's sonnet pivots on a boast made hollow by the monument's fate, the legend in Lazarus' poem could be construed as the opposite of a tyrant's imperial vanity. It is not a boast but a vow, and the stress is not on glorification of the self but on the rescue of others.

In Emma Lazarus' poem, the statue is a replacement for the Colossus of Rhodes, "the brazen giant of Greek fame." The great bronze monument to the sun god, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, stood in the harbor of Rhodes. (It crumbled in an earthquake in 226 b.c.) Not as a warrior with "conquering limbs" but as a woman with "mild eyes" and "silent lips," the new colossus will stand as tall as the old, honoring not a god but an idea, and it is that idea that will make it a wonder of the modern world.

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.

 

 

For many of us who recall, fondly or otherwise, climbing the statue's stairs with a parent or a busload of grade school chums, the peroration is so familiar that we may be immune to its literary excellence. But there is no more memorable statement of this vital aspect of the American dream than the promise of safe haven and a fair shake to people who have known only

 

"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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