Colossal Ode

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

Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock Wikimedia Commons

Near the end of the 1942 movie Saboteur, one of director Alfred Hitchcock's early American efforts, the heroine, played by Priscilla Lane, catches up with an enemy agent at the top of the Statue of Liberty. Pretending to flirt, she says it's her first time visiting the statue. This must be a big moment for her, the villainous saboteur replies with thin sarcasm. It is, she acknowledges with obvious feeling, and abruptly quotes the best-known lines from Emma Lazarus' poem "The New Colossus," engraved on the statue's pedestal:

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....

Without ever ceasing to be a "wrong man" thriller, in which a falsely accused hero must elude capture while tracking down the real culprit on his own, Saboteur is also an ode to American freedom, and it reaches its moral zenith here, with a statement of a special national purpose. For many in 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor catapulted the United States into World War II, Lazarus' welcome to the world's displaced marked the difference between the Allied and Axis powers.

Americans tend to take the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty for granted, as if she has always stood in New York Harbor welcoming immigrants. But much of what Lady Liberty stands for came from the poem written only 120 years ago. It gave meaning to the statue—not all at once but over a period of time. W. H. Auden was mistaken when he said that "poetry makes nothing happen," but the making can take years, even decades.

Last year marked the centenary of an event that almost went unnoticed at the time—the May 5, 1903, presentation of a bronze plaque of Lazarus' poem to the War Department post commander on Bedloe's Island. Lazarus had written her most famous poem in 1883 to raise money at an auction to help pay for a pedestal for Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi's gigantic statue, "Liberty Enlightening the World."

That same year, James Russell Lowell, the elder statesman of American poetry and, at the time, U.S. ambassador to England, had written to Lazarus from London: "I liked your sonnet about the Statue—much better than I like the Statue itself," adding that her poem "gives its subject a raison d'etre which it wanted before quite as much as it wanted a pedestal." A portfolio of drawings of the statue and manuscripts relating to it, including "The New Colossus," fetched only $1,500, less than the auction planners had hoped, and three more years went by before the statue—formally given by the French people in 1884—was finally unveiled on its completed pedestal on October 28, 1886.

At the ceremony dedicating the statue, no one read Lazarus' poem or even alluded to its open-armed welcome to immigrants fleeing hunger and persecution. Instead, President Grover Cleveland emphasized the spread of American ideals. The light from the statue's outstretched torch, he said, would "pierce the darkness of ignorance and man's oppression until Liberty shall enlighten the world." The statue was also seen as a monument to fraternal relations between France and the United States.

Lazarus died of cancer in 1887, at age 38. At her death, John Greenleaf Whittier compared her to Robert Browning, and Browning lauded her genius. She was hailed, too, for her political activism. Horrified by reports of bloody pogroms in czarist Russia in the early 1880s, she had become perhaps the foremost American proponent of what was not yet called Zionism—the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. But, for all the praise, her sonnet had slipped from view. "The New Colossus" went unmentioned even in her obituaries.

In 1903, following a two-year campaign by her friend Georgina Schuyler, "The New Colossus" plaque was placed on an interior wall of the statue's pedestal, where it remained virtually ignored for more than a generation. It was not until the 1930s, when Europeans in droves began seeking asylum from Fascist persecution, that the poem was rediscovered, and with it the growing recognition that it expressed the statue's true intention. Quoted in speeches, set to music by Irving Berlin, it ultimately melded with the statue itself as a source of patriotism and pride. In 1986, the plaque was moved to an introductory exhibit in the statue's pedestal.

As the editor of a new edition of The Oxford Book of American Poetry, I have revisited many poets, including some, like Emma Lazarus, who have been left out of the Oxford canon. A fascinating figure and a much more substantial poet than she has been given credit for, Lazarus enjoyed a long correspondence with Emerson, translated Heine and Goethe, and wrote superb sonnets on such subjects as the Long Island Sound and the statue of Venus at the Louvre. She will not be left out of the next edition.

"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
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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