Immortal words from an overlooked poet

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to live free.” from “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus

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The sonnet “The New Colossus” is inscribed on the bronze plaque affixed to the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands.  Today, this poem is once again being recognized and celebrated – opponents of our current immigration policies invoke its words as a cardinal tenet and affirmation of the United States’ true character.

Back in the day, we studied the poem in civics class and heard it set to music by Irving Berlin. The words had a special resonance for me and for many of my classmates: we were first-generation Americans, the children of immigrants.

Then, just as now, the poet, even when she is identified, is considered just someone who lived at some time in the past. She is seldom, if ever, included among the pantheon of esteemed 19th-century American writers, though she was acclaimed in her own time.

Emma Lazarus was the middle child of seven siblings born into a Sephardic family in New York City. She spent summers in Newport after her father purchased a “summer cottage” next to Belcourt mansion. During her early years, she developed a love of poetry.

Lazarus had an important tie to Rhode Island history. Touro Synagogue was the subject of one of her poems. One of her great-great-uncles was Moses Seixas, gabbai of Touro’s Congregation Jeshuat Israel. Seixas’ letter to President George Washington regarding religious liberty brought Washington’s historic response, which is still read every year in ceremonies at the synagogue.

At an early age, Lazarus began writing verse.  Her first book of poetry and translations of German works was privately published by her father in 1866, but then was given to a commercial publisher. She was 17. Two years later, she met Ralph Waldo Emerson, who took an interest in her poetry and encouraged her to continue. They began a long correspondence.

By the end of the next decade, Lazarus had gained international recognition for her poetry, translations and plays.

She used her status to take up the cause of the poor and oppressed. After the repressive laws and pogroms in Russia brought waves of Jewish immigrants to this country, their plight became the focus of her attention. 

She advocated on their behalf in both word and deed. She wrote articles and dedicated poems to them. She funded vocational training programs. She visited New York’s Ward’s Island, where immigrants were packed into barracks by immigration officials. She

gave free English lessons through the Jewish American nonprofit organization, HIAS. 

She translated, from the German, Hebrew poetry from medieval Spain to make the verses accessible to American readers. Thirteen years before Theodor Herzl, she promoted the idea of a Jewish homeland.

In elementary school, we learned that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States to commemorate the close friendship between the two countries.  The story behind its origins is a bit more complex (as history usually is). Suffice it to say, the gift was a joint project: France would pay for Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s statue, while the U.S. would pay for the pedestal, or base, partly through public subscription.

The target date for the statue’s delivery was the centennial of the Declaration of Independence. Miss Liberty’s head and torch arm were completed by the scheduled date. The torch arm was displayed in Philadelphia in 1876 and in Madison Square Park, in New York, from 1876 to 1882, before it was installed on Bedloe’s Island (now Liberty Island) in New York Harbor.

To raise funds for the base, prominent writers and artists were asked to provide works for an auction. Among the writers asked were Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, who agreed, and Emma Lazarus, who did not.  In her reply to the request, she said she did not write verse to order.

Writer Constance Cary Harrison, one of the chairwomen of the effort, persuaded Lazarus to change her mind by appealing to her heart. Think, she suggested, of Miss Liberty standing in the harbor, her torch a beacon for the refugees of whom you are so fond.

Two days later, the poem “The New Colossus” was completed. It brought in $1,500 in donations and was published in a souvenir booklet of works created for the auction.

Despite an initial positive reception, the poem might have passed into obscurity were it not for the efforts of Lazarus’ friend Georgina Schuyler (a direct descendant of Alexander Hamilton).  After two years of lobbying, Schuyler succeeded in having the sonnet engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. 

Emma Lazarus did not live to see this event. She died one year before, at age 37, in 1887, without knowing that her words had become this country’s moral vision, an immortal affirmation of its promise.

GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at info@rijha.org or 401-331-1360.