Emma Lazarus’ 1893 sonnet engraved on a plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty has been made famous again this week.
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.”
The poet was born on July 22, 1849 in New York City to a wealthy sugar refining family of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish descent whose roots extended to the very early days of New York City as a British colonial city, according to the information on the National Park Service website. Lazarus did charitable work on behalf of refugees taken to Ward Island.
Other sites hold more information on her life and highlight that there, she worked as an aide for Jewish immigrants who had been detained by immigration officials. She was deeply moved by these Russian Jews, who had come to the United States very poor after escaping vicious pogroms in Russia.
But even in those times, not everyone was happy about these immigrants, even recent Jewish immigrants to the country who feared a backlash would make life miserable for them. When, in 1883, Lazarus was asked to write a sonnet for the “Art Loan Fund Exhibition in Aid of the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund for the Statue of Liberty,” what she wrote was a rebellious sonnet against the discrimination she knew was thriving.
Though someone purchased Lazarus’ sonnet at the auction and she later published it in a small press Jewish literary magazine, the sonnet was forgotten. In 1901, almost two decades after Emma Lazarus died, her friend Georgina Schuyler found it in print and organized an effort to reinstate its popularity. Two years later, words from the sonnet were inscribed on a plaque and placed on the inner wall of Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. Today, the plaque is on display inside the Statue’s pedestal, and the Statue of Liberty Museum contains an exact replica of the plaque.
The poem began as a subversive poem. It’s literally subverting the meaning of the statue that the French intended it to have, which was to honor French republicanism and abolitionism. So Lazarus single-handedly changed what the statue meant.
That subversive poem becomes a bourgeois piety, at a certain point. The Cold War had something to do with it—in essence, the Statue of Liberty becomes a symbol of American liberty, as opposed to fascism. Irving Berlin set the poem to music and used it in “Miss Liberty” in 1949; the Statue of Liberty is also used in Saboteur, a 1942 Hitchcock movie. Then, “The New Colossus” is also taken up in the public schools as a recitation poem—it’s widely anthologized, read at civic gatherings. It’s hard to find a date, but I think the Cold War had a lot to do with it.
And my sense is it’s recovering its subversive power now.
This week, a National Public Radio reporter asked Ken Cuccinelli, Acting Citizenship and Immigration Services head whether the Emma Lazarus poem that includes the words “give me your tired, your poor,” should be removed from the Statue of Liberty because of a new Trump administration rule that seeks to deny green cards to migrants who use Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance” making it harder for low-income immigrants to stay in the country. In answer to this question, he offered a rewrite of the famous poem.
He added these words, “…the Statue of Liberty plaque should be changed to read, ‘give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.'”
He then commented that in the day that Lazarus wrote the poem, she was referring to immigrants from Europe; critics of the administration have taken this as evidence that Cuccinelli means the poem is speaking of white wealthy folks from European countries and, I would add, not the poor refugees from Eastern Europe on whose behalf Lazarus was working.
Listen to the sound of his words. Hear the poetry draining right out of the poem. Instead of “your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” we get, “who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.”
The didactic sound of these words! This is not poetic license, which is the act of changing words, defying grammar, or even changing sequences, to enhance artistry. Cuccinelli is stereotyping with his authoritarian phrase. His words connote something like, “The current daddy legislators and policymakers of the country know best who can rightfully long to be free and who may not rightfully do so. Come, come, children, come away from those nasty immigrants. Listen to your parents.”
Again, this is not poetic license but license to become tasteless and manipulative; such license has no interest in reaching for artistic merit, art’s attempt to restore us to our better selves by fostering a connection to our deepest selves and thus to others, connection based on honesty and humility.
Here is an exercise for staying whole despite the meaner and meaner words we and our children and grandchildren are hearing every day.
First, imagine a movement afoot to etch Cuccinelli’s version of the poem on a replacement bronze plaque. Then write to the project manager of this imagined effort telling a story of being a young child and mishearing words spoken by adults, causing the world to take on magical meaning and freeing you from the restrictions of seeing in black and white terms, of terms in which people are either us or them.
Or, write the letter about longing for the plaque with the unadulterated words to be returned. What did you learn about the values of America in school? Why does this matter to you? Tell the imagined project manager.
Or, write about a time in your life when someone of a different nationality and social standing “lifted” you out of sadness, neediness or despair.
Whichever your strategy for writing this letter, something felt and wise will be on the page. As Miriam Greenspan writes in her book Healing Through the Dark Emotions, we write because it helps us find the light:
We are all interconnected in social systems that are imbued with emotional energy, as individuals are. These systems include our families, working places, communities, states, nations, and the world. Like an individual, a system can be–and often is–unconscious of the dark emotional energy that circulates through it.
Unconscious dark emotions, whether in an individual or a system, are potentially dangerous. The tendency to act out of the unconscious emotional energies of grief, fear, and despair fuels acts of blindness and escalating violence. OUr ability to work productively with emotional energy in a given system depends on our collective emotional intelligence–our levels of emotional awareness and emotional tolerance.
The most important single skill in working with the dark emotions within larger social systems is the capacity for empathy. It is in feeling with others in the human family that we find ways to heal ourselves and the systems in which we are embedded.
What is true art for but to heal ourselves and thus our world? As writers, we must not let rhetoric devoid of empathy go on challenged. We must write in response to patriarchy, write from our hearts and offer the healing we find to others so we can help create a swell against the actions of those who work to trample hearts rather than create a world in which our interconnectedness fosters empathy as a way of knowing.