The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus

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Colossus of Rhodes, 1760, Anonymous

I like poems about monuments, especially Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias , which describes a broken and abandoned statue in the desert. He wrote that “two trunkless legs of stone” stand alone in the desert. For me, this work has always represented hubris, and the fleeting power of forced coercion. His poem shows up in my research occasionally, especially in reference to earthen mounds of the Southeast made after the adoption of agriculture. More recently, another poem has given me food for thought, Emma Lazarus’s New Colossus. Her sonnet is inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, and even though I’ve visited Ellis Island several times, I don’t think I ever really paid attention to the words. Recently, my co-teacher asked our students to read this poem, so I want to thank her for making me aware of this poem.

Shelly’s abandoned monument serves to remind us of former despots; Lady Liberty, in Lazarus’ words, provides a guiding light to the future.  Shelly writes that the “sneer of cold command”, the power of the hand that forced its creation, can still be read in ruins of that monument in the desert. Meanwhile, Lady Liberty in The New Colossus, is a beacon for those seeking shelter, hope, and a new beginning. She is motherly and kind, a symbol for migrants searching for a home and for opportunities,  perhaps even respite from tyrants. Perhaps even the kind of tyrants that inspired Shelly’s Ozymandias.

Today, Lazarus’ poem is a stark reminder to me of how of our values have changed. The Statue of Liberty, gifted to us by France, was a reminder of shared values, especially the will of the people. Lazarus’ poem and its location on Ellis Island, marked the monument as a beacon of hope for immigrants, much like myself. For me, this statue is a reminder of what makes us great and that our collective ideals are far stronger than that of any tyrant.

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Moran, 1886

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!”

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