The Power of a Poem

“Give me your tired, your poor/your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . ” is one of the most famous lines in American poetry and is from the poem ‘The New Colossus.’ What many Americans may be surprised to learn is that the poem was written by a Jewish-American of Portuguese ethnicity: Emma Lazarus.

Lazarus wrote the poem to raise money for the construction of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. It was the only poem read at the exhibit’s opening but was quickly forgotten by the time of the statue’s opening in 1886. In 1903, a bronze plaque bearing the text of the poem was mounted on the inner wall of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The great wave of immigration at the turn of the 20th century made Lazarus’ prophetic words a reality for the millions of new Americans who passed beneath the statue.

American novelist Paul Auster wrote that the statue “was originally intended as a monument to the principles of international republicanism, but ‘The New Colossus’ reinvented the statue’s purpose, turning Liberty into a welcoming mother, a symbol of hope to the outcasts and downtrodden of the world”.  Sadly, Emma Lazarus died soon after the statue was erected never knowing the impact and immortality of her poem.


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!”

~Emma Lazarus, 1883

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