The New Colossus

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The Statue of Liberty; the New Colossus

The New Colossus is a Petrarchan sonnet written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus. It is engraved on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty. The work is often times promoted by the media as a policy statement about immigration, however it is nothing more than an aspirational poem.[1]

The Statue of Tyranny; the Old Colossus

While the poem is inspired by the plight of people who faced oppression, it is a statement of American Exceptionalism and not an excuse for the arrival of unbridled illegal aliens.

Interpretation

The sonnet contains several verses, most of which are completely ignored. The first section of the sonnet presents the tone of the whole:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Emma Lazarus was a fifth-generation girl of Jewish descent who was deeply moved and sympathetic to the plight of those in Russia being mistreated during the Pogroms. This section describes how the Statue of Liberty is "Not like" that other "brazen" statue, which stood "With conquering limbs". She stands on Liberty Island, but in contrast to the Statue of Tyranny which stood at Rhodes in old Europe.

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.

This section highlights Lazarus' fondness and appreciation for the Liberty and uniqueness available in America that was and still is not found elsewhere in the world. American Liberty is so important that a statue has been erected to put it on full display. The Statue of Liberty, this "Mighty woman" is the New Colossus, which has eclipsed the outmoded ideals as represented by the Old Colossus.

From her beacon-hand
Glows worldwide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

The Statue of Liberty, with her "imprisoned lightning" stands as a symbol for all to see, even at night, between the twin cities of at the "sea-washed, sunset gates" at the mouths of the East River and the Hudson. She welcomes anybody, from anywhere, who is interested in being set free from the bonds of authoritarianism.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

European lands had long been dominated by tyrannical monarchs and tsars, and even as Lazarus wrote the poem the old tyrannies were being replaced by new forms of dictatorship such as socialism and communism. The Lords and technocrats of all kinds were and still are proud of their accomplishments, their family names and titles of nobility, and Lazarus says of their "storied pomp" that it doesn't matter. Keep all of that, because Liberty is more valuable. She is ridiculing the old systems which have proven over the centuries to be unworkable. Together with the opening line that contrasts the Statue of Tyranny with the Statute of Liberty, this section in 8 words tells the overlooked story of the sonnet.

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!"

The lords and tsars who had overlooked the people who didn't have any "storied pomp" - those average people deemed unvaluable by their betters. The forgotten man and woman. That is what this section is about. Those "yearning to breathe free" who were never allowed to. If they want to come, we will take them.

The forgotten man can find the golden door, and it is here. The Mother of Exiles holds the "imprisoned lightning" even at night just in case the path is hard to find. Here is the door, and She lights the way.

Even though Lazarus is explicitly writing about freedom, many do not believe in Individual Liberty so they have to interpret this as a welcome to the welfare state and endless redistribution. Lazarus wrote that Europe's "huddled masses" were "yearning to breathe free", not that they were "yearning to receive free transfer payments".

Complete text

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 worldwide 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!"

See also

References