Summary of The New Colossus

This sonnet may be the most prominent placement of any English poem, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour. It also has one of the most famous placements in history. The Statue of Liberty is compared to the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, by Lazarus. The Colossus of Rhodes, like the Statue of Liberty, was a massive god-like statue erected in a harbour. Even though the Colossus of Rhodes is no longer standing, it represents the old Greek world and the glory of ancient Greek and Roman civilisation, which was lost to the West for a thousand years and only fully recovered during the Renaissance.

In “The New Colossus”,  the relationship between the ancient world and America, a modern nation, is crystallised. It’s a connection that can be observed in the White House and other state and judicial buildings across America, which are architecturally similar to ancient Greek and Roman structures, as well as in the American political system, which is similar to Athenian Democracy and Roman Republicanism.

Despite this broad comparison of the ancient and the American, Lazarus manages to clearly portray America’s distinct character. It is the can-do mentality of accepting oppressed and destitute people from all over the world and offering them a new chance and hope for the future that she refers to as “the golden door.” It is a distinct scrappy and sympathetic trait that distinguishes Americans from the ancients.

Analysis of The New Colossus

Even though the Statue of Liberty had not yet been built when Emma Lazarus started writing her poem “The New Colossus” in 1883, she already knew what such a symbol would mean to both native and new Americans: a warm and inviting beacon of hope. She begins the piece by juxtaposing the terrifying and ancient Colossus of Rhodes with the contemporary huge figure of a formidable woman who greets all visitors to New York Harbor.

The statue then takes up the poetic narration, contrasting America with the Old World by asserting that the ‘ancient lands’ are more concerned with ‘storied pomp’ than the welfare of their people. ‘I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’ she says to all the disenfranchised around the world, welcoming them to a life of freedom and opportunity.

If you’ve spent any time in an English class, you’re probably somewhat familiar with the sonnets of Shakespeare. To help us better understand Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, it’s important to know that it is also a sonnet, only it’s a type known as a Petrarchan sonnet, an Italian sonnet form that divides the poem by rhyme groups into a section of eight lines (octave), followed by one of six (sestet). Or 14 lines structured as 3 quatrains and a couplet.  

The usual rhyming scheme is a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g

The octave of Lazarus’ sonnet begins by establishing the stark contrasts between the old Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the New Colossus that is to take its place as a mark of human endeavour. For Lazarus, the old statue is masculine and oppressive, symbolizing the often domineering nature of Old World patriarchies. 

On the other hand, the new one is a ‘mighty woman’ who brandishes a torch ‘whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning,’ which references not only the harnessing of electricity, but also her ability to command a force often reserved for Zeus, Thor, or other male deities. Through a combination of her soft features and firm hand, she becomes the Mother of Exiles, both in a traditional nurturing sense and about the matronly authority that allows her to ‘command / The air-bridged harbour that twin cities frame.’ 

No matter what type it is, every sonnet contains a volta (Italian for ‘turn’) of some sort, which represents a change in the poem’s subject matter. Change in narrator to Lady Liberty herself in the final Sestet.

The significance of this poem extends from pilgrims fleeing religious persecution in Europe to the debates surrounding modern immigration from Mexico and the Middle East. While times have changed dramatically, there is no doubting that this open door was an important part of what made America great in the past. It’s the excellent depiction of this basic Americanness that elevates “The New Colossus.”

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