The French gave the State of Liberty to the United States in 1886. The two countries built the statue together to serve as a memorial of their difficult, revolutionary struggles. But, in 1903 Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus” made the Statue into more than just a symbol of the two nations’ independence. Her poem, and the epigraph from it now engraved at the Statue’s base, turned the Statue of Liberty into a welcoming mother and a symbol of hope to immigrants from all over the world.
To celebrate American independence, Experimental Wifery shows you how to really read a poem that reminds us not only what it means to be American, but also of the role all women should play in welcoming strangers and tending to the down-trodden.
“The New Colossus”
by Emma Lazarus
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 Colossus was a statue more than 100 feet tall in third-century B.C. Rhodes. The ancient Rhodesians built the statue to honor the sun god Helios to celebrate their freedom and independence after their victory over Cyprus. This Wonder of the ancient world was even built from the iron and bronze weapons the fleeing army left behind.
Not a powerful, Greek god but a strong woman of the same stature stands at the entryway to the United States. Like the Colossus, she stands guard and proclaims liberty across the sea. That liberty is built, not from the spoils of war, but from the people other countries cast off. And the Statue of Liberty welcomes them all.
“The New Colossus” is a Petrarchan sonnet: a fourteen-line poem in two stanzas with a volta, or turn, between them. The first stanza dramatically describes the Statue of Liberty, comparing it to the Colossus at Rhodes. By saving her words until the second stanza, Lazarus emphasizes the contrast between the martial Colossus and the welcoming Statue.
Lazarus uses alliteration, the repetition of initial consonant sounds, to emphasize the most important phrases in the first stanza: sea-washed, sunset gates and world-wide welcome.
“The New Colossus” uses metaphorical language to make the Statue of Liberty more human.
- Personification treats the Statute of Liberty, which is an inanimate object, as a real person who speaks and feels.
- The speaker uses paradox, or logical contradiction, to draw our attention to the personification—“she says with silent lips.”
- “The New Colossus” is a poem about America, but it is also a poem about the feminine virtues of hospitality and charity. By allow the Statue to speak for herself, the speaker proposes a way to think about others from which all women can learn.