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The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus
The New Colossus is a poem by Emma Lazarus, an American poet who lived from 1849 to 1987. She wrote it in 1883. During her brief lifetime, she witnessed the United States being transformed by an influx of immigrants. Even though her family had been in America since the 1600s, she felt a strong affinity for immigrants, particularly fellow Jews who had fled Eastern Europe to avoid persecution and violence. She wrote “The New Colossus,” a poem about the Statue of Liberty, in 1883 in order to raise funds for the construction of a pedestal for the statue. Although The New Colossus was the only entry read at the exhibition, it was forgotten and played no role in the unveiling of the statue in 1886. Later, in 1903, the poem’s text was inscribed on the pedestal as a memorial.
Text of the Poem
Summary of The New Colossus
“The New Colossus” is a poem written by Emma Lazarus, a young Russian Jewish immigrant who grew up in the United States. She wrote the poem in order to raise funds for the pedestal that will support the Statue of Liberty . The poet Emma Lazarus was not invited to the dedication ceremony in 1868, but her poem was eventually recognised and permanently attached to the base of the Statue of Liberty in 1903. Her poem has become famous throughout the world because it focuses on the people who are coming to America, rather than the abstract concept of liberty.
Even though the Statue of Liberty had not yet been built when Emma Lazarus began writing her poem ‘The New Colossus.’ She had a clear understanding of what such a symbol would represent to both native and immigrant citizens of the United States: a warm and welcoming beacon of hope. She begins the piece by drawing a contrast between the intimidating and ancient Colossus of Rhodes and the new colossal figure of a mighty woman who greets everyone entering New York Harbor with a cordial greeting.
Later, the statue herself takes over, offering contrasts between America and the Old World, claiming that the “ancient lands” are more concerned with “storied pomp” than with the well-being of their citizens. After that, she calls out to all of the disenfranchised people all over the world, beckoning them to a life of freedom and opportunity: ‘I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’ she says.
If you’ve ever spent any time in an English class, you’re probably familiar with Shakespeare’s sonnets and other works of poetry. We should be aware that Emma Lazarus’ famous poem is also a sonnet, albeit of a type known as a Petrarchan sonnet, an Italian sonnet form that divides the poem by rhyme groups into an eight-line section (octave), followed by a six-line section. This knowledge will help us better understand Emma Lazarus’ famous poem (sestet). Alternatively, 14 lines are structured as three quatrains and a couplet.
The standard rhyming scheme is as follows: a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g.
The first 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, which will eventually replace it as a symbol of human achievement and achievement. In the eyes of Lazarus, the old statue is masculine and oppressive, symbolising the often domineering nature of Old World patriarchies, which he sees as a source of inspiration.
The new one, on the other hand, is a mighty woman who wields a torch ‘whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning,’ which alludes not only to the harnessing of electricity, but also to her ability to command a force that is typically reserved for Zeus, Thor, and other male deities. The combination of her soft features and firm hand transforms her into the Mother of Exiles, both in a traditional nurturing sense and in reference to matronly authority, which allows her to ‘command / The air-bridged harbour that twin cities frame,’ in the words of the poet.
Every sonnet, regardless of its style, contains a volta (Italian for ‘turn’) of some kind, which represents a shift in the subject matter of the poem. After Lady Liberty appears in the final Sestet, the narrator shifts to her own voice.
Themes of The New Colossus
In “The New Colossus,” the Statue of Liberty is compared to the Colossus of Rhodes, an ancient Greek statue. In contrast to the ancient statue, which served as a deterrent to enemies, the new statue’s name, torch, and position on America’s eastern shore all signal her status as a protector of exiles and asylum seekers alike. Whether it’s the exiles who founded the United States or those who hope to make America their new home, she protects them all. When the speaker imagines the statue’s voice, the statue speaks directly to Europe’s “ancient lands” and claims them as her own. The Statue of Liberty is portrayed as a welcoming symbol in the poem, and the poem’s message to embrace foreigners with open arms is reinforced by each of these features.
When it comes to their relationship to their homeland and foreigners, the two statues depicted in this poem have a very different take on it. The Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, is known as the “brazen giant.” Built to honour a military victory, the “conquering limbs” of the monument are believed to cross a harbour. It was necessary for all foreign ships to pass beneath the statue’s “brazen” or bronze legs, contemplating the deaths of the defeated soldiers whose abandoned weapons were used to create the statue. Forewarning sailors and potential invaders, this threatening posture served as an effective deterrence tactic. The New Colossus, on the other hand, is firmly planted at the “sea-washed, sunset gates” of America’s border. The Eastern Shore of the United States, which faces Europe across the Atlantic Ocean, is depicted here in a lyrical light.
That the statue is called “Mother of Exiles” and her torch is described as a beacon adds credence to the openness of the poem’s first eight lines. A torch was included in the Statue of Liberty’s French sculptor’s design to represent the light of liberty and reason shining out into the world. The torch in the poem, on the other hand, shines for the same purpose as a lighthouse: to guide travellers back to their destinations. It serves as a “beacon” or sign of “welcome” for the thousands of immigrants who arrive in New York.
During the final sestet of the sonnet, the statue is placed in direct conversation with the “ancient lands” of Europe from which immigrants flee, cementing its role as a guardian of the new world. Unlike the “storied pomp” of European empires, such as those of ancient Greece, the statue rejects the “historical pomp.” The bronze weapons of Cyprus’s defeated army were used to build the Colossus of Rhodes. Because of this, it is a pompous display of power that glorifies victory while ignoring the suffering of the conquered. The New Colossus demands that the “huddled masses” of the old world be sent to her. To ensure that those who are “homeless” and long to “breathe free” find a safe haven, she will be there. As a “lamp,” the statue’s torch shines a bright light on the “golden door” of American opportunity in the final line.
So the Statue of Liberty’s golden promise offers a tantalising alternative to the Colossus of Rhodes’ symbolism. As the speaker sees it, the maternal statue and her message of radical hospitality can become a symbol for the United States as a whole. To put it another way, the poem shows that the Statue of Liberty is both a symbol of America’s values and a symbol of the country’s willingness to accept and actively welcome immigrants.
Given that this poem was written to benefit a fundraiser for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, it implicitly invites readers to contrast what the poem says about the historical statue with what it does not say. While the poem does not refer to the statue by its formal name, “Liberty Enlightening the World,” it is deeply concerned with the statue’s widely accepted association with liberty and freedom. It implies that the expansion of powerful ancient European empires based on class and military might deprived many people of personal and political liberty, and then has the statue express a promise to restore that basic human right. “The New Colossus” embodies an idealistic vision of nationhood in which government power is used to uphold the inherent dignity and right to liberty of all people, rather than to conquer.
The octave, or first eight lines of the sonnet, describes the political conditions under which liberty is either universally available or restricted to some. It pits ancient oppressive structures against a new American commitment to asylum. The Colossus of Rhodes, an ancient statue constructed in commemoration of a military victory, is said to have “conquering limbs.” This majestic description obscures the consequences of war, in which the conqueror prospers at the expense of the conquered. The poem criticises this political system by substituting a welcoming yet “mighty” statue on America’s eastern shoreline for the threatening statue (the shoreline that faces Europe across the Atlantic). The speaker does not deviate from the poem’s formal, historical title when naming the new statue: “Liberty Enlightening the World.” Thus, the statue’s connection to Libertas, the Roman goddess of liberty, is obscured. Rather than referring to liberty as political independence, the poem renames the statue “Mother of Exiles.” This title, combined with the torch raised by the statue to extend a “global welcome” to refugees, elevates this statue and the nation on whose shore it stands to the status of a guardian of all who seek freedom in a new home. More broadly, the poem refers to the statue as a “new colossus,” implying that it is supplanting the values of the ancient Colossus of Rhodes and that the new values offered by America will supplant Europe’s old militaristic and despotic forces.
However, when the word “free” appears in line 11, the immigrants drawn to America’s shores do not yet possess the liberty they seek. Rather than that, the word is included as part of a command from The New Colossus for the ancient European lands to liberate the forgotten people whose individual dreams have been crushed by oppression. They are the ones who yearn to “breathe freely,” as their human rights have been eroded to the point of “refusal.” The maternal statue asserts ownership of these exiles and promises to guide them through the “golden door” of opportunity. The implication is that human rights are respected on American soil, and everyone is provided with the resources necessary to thrive. However, when the poem concludes, the statue is left unattended, awaiting the arrival of the refugees. Thus, “The New Colossus” presents freedom as a worthy ideal that has yet to be realised in the world outside the poem.