CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (29): Emma Lazarus and Liberty Lighting the World … “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
In a letter to Emma Lazarus about Alide, an episode of Goethe’s Life. the Russian novelist Turgenev wrote “An author who writes as you do is not a pupil in art anymore; he is not far from being himself a master.”
“Emma Lazarus is a new name to us in American poetry, but ‘Admetus’ is not the work of a ‘prentice-hand’; few recent volumes of verse compare favorably with the spirit and musical expression of these genuine effusions of Emma Lazarus.” The Boston Transcript, c 1871
“What Emma Lazarus might have accomplished, had she been spared, it is idle and even ungrateful to speculate. What she did accomplish has real and peculiar significance. It is the privilege of a favored few that every fact and circumstance of their individuality shall add lustre and value to what they achieve. To be born a Jewess was a distinction to Emma Lazarus, and she in turn conferred distinction upon her race.” Josephine Lazarus, Emma’s elder sister who gather her poems together and published them in two volumes, The Poems of Emma Lazarus, 1881
“Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Emma Lazarus
EMMA LAZARUS, poet, writer and activist, was by all accounts shy and she died at thirty-nine years, much too young. Nonetheless she accomplished a lot in addition to that for which she is most well-known, The New Colossus, the sonnet that is on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World) in New York Harbor, having been installed there in 1903.
“The copper statue, designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a French sculptor, was built by Gustave Eiffel and dedicated on October 28, 1886. It was a gift to the United States from the people of France. The statue is of a robed female figure representing Libertas, the Roman goddess, who bears a torch and a ]a tablet evoking the law upon which is inscribed the date of the American Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. A broken chain lies at her feet. The statue is an icon of freedom and of the United States, and was a welcoming sight to immigrants arriving from abroad.” [Wikipedia]
In fact Lady Liberty greeted my own father and maternal grandparents and their children as they entered the harbor just as she probably did for the families of those reading here today. Their children and grandchildren learned the poem by heart in school. I suspect the majority of us took the ideals expressed as our own.
A hymn to America, the “Mother of Exiles,” The New Colossus, was written to raise money for the construction of the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.
The New Colossus – 1883
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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
– Emma Lazarus
Emma came from a large Sephardic-Ashkenazi family, the father’s side from Germany and the mother’s side from Portugal. Her maternal great-grandmother was also a poet. Emma’s first book of poems was published by her father when she was fourteen and apparently showed much promise. She continued to write poetry and eventually wrote a five-act play, a novel and a short-story as well. She was a linguist, editing and translating works from the German, notably those of Goethe and Heinrich Heine. She wrote fourteen essays entitled Letters to the Hebrews. She was a forerunner in advocating a Jewish homeland, predating Theodore Herzi. She was friends with and an admirer of the American political economist, Henry George, who was instrumental in the birth of several reform movements of the Progressive Era. Essentially, George believed that workers should own the value of what they create, while the land should be held in common. Ralph Waldo Emerson was both friend and mentor.
Emma Lazarus received many posthumous awards. The Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award is sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society (New York and Massachusetts) and P.S. 268 in Brooklyn is named for her.
Life and Art
Not while the fever of the blood is strong,
The heart throbs loud, the eyes are veiled, no less
With passion than with tears, the Muse shall bless
The poet-sould to help and soothe with song.
Not then she bids his trembling lips express
The aching gladness, the voluptuous pain.
Life is his poem then; flesh, sense, and brain
One full-stringed lyre attuned to happiness.
But when the dream is done, the pulses fail,
The day’s illusion, with the day’s sun set,
He, lonely in the twilight, sees the pale
Divine Consoler, featured like Regret,
Enter and clasp his hand and kiss his brow.
Then his lips ope to sing–as mine do now.
– Emma Lazarus
- Obituary, Emma Lazarus, The New York Times
- Emma Lazarus and The Statue of Liberty, Henry Weinrib. Jewish Magazine