Emma Lazarus, Poet of the Huddled Masses

This sketch of Emma Lazarus was made in about 1880, when she was about 30 years old. The poet lived i i

hide captionThis sketch of Emma Lazarus was made in about 1880, when she was about 30 years old. The poet lived from 1849-1887. Scroll down to see some of Lazarus' poetry

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
This sketch of Emma Lazarus was made in about 1880, when she was about 30 years old. The poet lived

This sketch of Emma Lazarus was made in about 1880, when she was about 30 years old. The poet lived from 1849-1887. Scroll down to see some of Lazarus' poetry

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In her poem The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus created what stood for years as an American credo. You know the words: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."

The words of the poem were engraved on a bronze plaque hung in the Statue of Liberty museum 20 years after her death. To many, the verse expressed the governing U.S. attitude toward immigrants: welcome. But today, a new debate over immigration is dominating the political debate.

So it's a good time to take a new look at the writer. Esther Schor, poet and professor of English at Princeton University, offers that chance with a new biography: Emma Lazarus.

Lazarus was a Sephardic Jew, a descendant of people expelled from Spain centuries before. She often wrote about the "Jewish plight" in her poetry. She was an early Jewish nationalist — advocating for a Jewish state in Palestine as early as the 1880s.

Near the end of her life she became an advocate for disenfranchised immigrants, who were arriving by the thousands in the late 1800s.

She wrote The New Colossus at age 34. Less than five years later she was dead of cancer, never knowing the impact her poem had on the nation.

Poetry by Emma Lazarus

Three of Emma Lazarus' poems, including her most famous, The New Colossus:

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 fates 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!"

Heroes

In rich Virginian woods,

The scarlet creeper reddens over graves,

Among the solemn trees enlooped with vines;

Heroic spirits haunt the solitudes, —

The noble souls of half a million braves,

Amid the murmurous pines.

 

Ah! who is left behind,

Earnest and eloquent, sincere and strong,

To consecrate their memories with words

Not all unmeet? with fitting dirge and song

To chant a requiem purer than the wind,

And sweeter than the birds?

 

Here, though all seems at peace,

The placid, measureless sky serenely fair,

The laughter of the breeze among the leaves,

The bars of sunlight slanting through the trees,

The reckless wild-flowers blooming everywhere,

The grasses' delicate sheaves, —

 

Nathless each breeze that blows,

Each tree that trembles to its leafy head

With nervous life, revives within our mind,

Tender as flowers of May, the thoughts of those

Who lie beneath the living beauty, dead, —

Beneath the sunshine, blind.

 

For brave dead soldiers, these:

Blessings and tears of aching thankfulness,

Soft flowers for the graves in wreaths enwove,

The odorous lilac of dear memories,

The heroic blossoms of the wilderness,

And the rich rose of love.

 

But who has sung their praise,

Not less illustrious, who are living yet?

Armies of heroes, satisfied to pass

Calmly, serenely from the whole world's gaze,

And cheerfully accept, without regret,

Their old life as it was,

 

With all its petty pain,

Its irritating littleness and care;

They who have scaled the mountain, with content

Sublime, descend to live upon the plain;

Steadfast as though they breathed the mountain-air

Still, wheresoe'er they went.

 

They who were brave to act,

And rich enough their action to forget;

Who, having filled their day with chivalry,

Withdraw and keep their simpleness intact,

And all unconscious add more luster yet

Unto their victory.

 

On the broad Western plains

Their patriarchal life they live anew;

Hunters as mighty as the men of old,

Or harvesting the plenteous, yellow grains,

Gathering ripe vintage of dusk bunches blue,

Or working mines of gold;

 

Or toiling in the town,

Armed against hindrance, weariness, defeat,

With dauntless purpose not to swerve or yield,

And calm, defiant strength, they struggle on,

As sturdy and as valiant in the street,

As in the camp and field.

 

And those condemned to live,

Maimed, helpless, lingering still through suffering years,

May they not envy now the restful sleep

Of the dear fellow-martyrs they survive?

Not o'er the dead, but over these, your tears,

O brothers, ye may weep!

 

New England fields I see,

The lovely, cultured landscape, waving grain,

Wide, haughty rivers, and pale, English skies.

And lo! A farmer ploughing busily,

Who lifts a swart face, looks upon the plain, —

I see, in his frank eyes,

 

The hero's soul appear.

Thus in the common fields and streets they stand;

The light that on the past and distant gleams,

They cast upon the present and the near,

With antique virtues from some mystic land,

Of knightly deeds and dreams.

Crowing of the Red Cock

Across the Eastern sky has flowed

The flicker of a blood-red dawn,

Once more the clarion cock has crowed,

Once more the sword of Christ is drawn.

A million burning rooftrees light

The world-wide path of Israel's flight.

 

Where is the Hebrew's fatherland?

The folk of Christ is sore bestead;

The Son of Man is bruised and banned,

Nor finds whereon to lay his head.

His cup is gall, his meat is tears,

His passion lasts a thousand years.

 

Each crime that wakes in man the beast,

Is visited upon his kind.

The lust of mobs, the greed of priest,

The tyranny of kings, combined

To root his seed from earth again,

His record is one cry of pain.

 

When the long roll of Christian guilt

Against his sires and kin is known,

The flood of tears, the life-blood split,

The agony of ages shown,

What oceans can the stain remove,

From Christian law and Christian love?

 

Nay, close the book; not now, not here,

The hideous tale of sin narrate,

Reechoing in the martyr's ear,

Even he might nurse revengeful hate,

Even he might turn in wrath sublime,

With blood for blood and crime for crime.

 

Coward? Not he, who faces death,

Who singly against worlds has fought,

For what? A name he may not breathe,

For liberty of prayer and thought.

The angry sword he will not whet,

His nobler task is — to forget.

Books Featured In This Story

Emma Lazarus
Emma Lazarus

by Esther H. Schor

Hardcover, 347 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • Emma Lazarus
  • Esther H. Schor

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: