Poetry Sunday: “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I chose today’s poem for the fourth of July and honor our country’s tradition of welcoming immigrants to its shores. “The New Colossus” has long been a favorite of mine, albeit one I read now stabbed by irony, sorrow, and no little shame. As a child in grade school, I was taught America was founded and built by immigrants and to cherish the notion of the great melting pot that keeps it, like a well-diversified gene pool, healthy, strong, and innovative. My ancestors were from somewhere else, and unless you are a Native American, it’s a good bet yours were, too, and proud of it. Now is not the first time, of course, that America has shut its doors to immigrants, but still I cannot help but wonder how we can have forgotten the principles our country was built upon.

The author, were she alive today, would not have forgotten. An activist who championed Jewish identity and worked tirelessly to improve the lot of the poor, Emma Lazarus valued freedom and social justice and understood the importance of immigrants to this country’s future. And it is still to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty that tourists flock.

The “Colossus” of the title and first line of today’s poem is the Colossus of Rhodes, a gargantuan statue of Helios, the Greek sun god and one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This “brazen giant of Greek fame” was reportedly made from weapons melted down after a battle against an invading general, and it stood more than one hundred feet tall. Reminiscent of the stage sets from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was so massive that ships planned to sail between its legs before it was destroyed by an earthquake after just thirty years.

Lazarus opens her poem, significantly, with a “not.” This is NOT the Colossus of Rhodes, whose early demise made it a symbol of the folly of human ambition, famously represented in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

No, Lazarus says, this is an altogether different sort of colossus, female and fierce and built not as a monument to one man’s ambition but to a country’s ideals of justice and liberty for all, not just the rich, powerful, and already-established.

Today’s poem, one of the most popular and enduring exemplars of the sonnet form, follows classic Petrarchan rhyme patterning in its octet (abba abba) which, significantly, switches to alternating rhyme (cdcdcd) in its sestet. Traditional Petrarchan sonnets, you may recall, employ interlocking rhyme in the sestet, some version of cdecde. Lazaraus, a scholar, would have known this, and it’s my theory that just as she bends the male figure of the Colossus to her aims in this poem, she also bends the canonical (read “white male patriarchal” here if you like) sonnet form. “The New Colossus” does follow classic sonnet form in its meter, iambic pentameter, with ten syllables and five beats to a line. The first 8 lines make up a single sentence which, as we expect in Petrarchan sonnets, make a turn in line 9’s new sentence, changing from third-person narration to direct dialogue spoken by Lady Liberty. The rest of the poem consists entirely of her words, lines that embody the “world-wide welcome” of line 7 and culminate with the words that still give me goosebumps:

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!

Shelley’s “Ozymandias” tells a dark tale of the folly of human ambition, especially when that ambition revolves around the “storied pomp” decried in “The New Colossus,” and there are some days when I fear it tells a truer tale of my America than Lazarus’s poem does. Both poems reject ambition for ambition’s sake. Lazarus goes further and with more hope, harnessing the power of a classical canonical form to her own aims and giving us a female heroic figure instead of the man we expect. Her Lady Liberty is every inch the warrior, a “mighty woman with a torch” who declaims in ringing lines about the welcome immigrants can expect at our portals. Or could, at one time and will, I hope, again.


POETRY EVENT NOTE: In 2015 I was honored to be the Dartmouth Poet in Residence at The Frost Place in Franconia, NH, the farmhouse where Frost spend many of his most productive writing years. The Frost Place is celebrating its 40th Anniversary this year with a weekend July 21-23 of events free and open to the public. Friday Night, Charles Simic and Nikky Finney will read in the Henry Holt Barn, followed by cake and champagne. Saturday afternoon TFP will host a wine and cheese reception and a reading of the [email protected] and Gregory Pardlo Scholars, Diana Delgado, Gerardo Pacheco Matus, William Palomo, Charif Shanahan, and Javier Zamora. Saturday Night Gordon Clapp will star in performance of This Verse Business, a play based on Frost’s work. On Sunday, the public is invited to attend and read a favorite Frost poem at an all-day Read-A-Thon. For more information, visit http://frostplace.org/anniversary-events-list/

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  • Millicent Borges Accardi July 2, 2017 at 5:46 pm

    Emma Lazarus was also our first female Portuguese-American writer! Born on July 22, 1849 in New York City to a wealthy sugar refining family of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish descent. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/emma-lazarus