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Emma Lazarus
by Chandrika Prajapati Bookmark and Share

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Emma Lazarus, a nineteenth century American poet, is best remembered for her sonnet, "The New Colossus," whose words, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." are inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. In her prime, during the 1870's and 1880's, she received much recognition as "a poetess, a magaziness, and a Jewess," in the words of Henry James (Young, 210). Her poems and essays appeared in The Century, Lippincott's, The Critic, and other leading magazines. At the same time, she wrote assertively on Jewish themes in such journals as the American Hebrew and sought to help the masses of Jewish immigrants who had fled to America. 

The question is, why have her non-Statue works slipped through the cracks; what about the "Jewess?"

"Born in 1849, Lazarus came to maturity during the industrial boom of the post-Civil War years. The Lazarus family, of Sephardic origins, had acquired wealth generations earlier and, like others in their aristocratic circles, they looked down on the new-moneyed folk. Theirs was the genteel Victorian society of New York's exclusive Union and Knickerbockers clubs, and their children grew up tutored in music, language, literature, and arts, far removed from the excess of the Gilded Age (Jacob, 13-19).

In her cultivated environment, Lazarus could be accepted as both a writer and a Jew. In fact, writing was one of the few vocations in which women had already gained considerable recognition. Established women such as Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Julia Ward Howe, and other New England authors set the stage for upcoming women writers. However, Lazarus's Jewish heritage was another matter. It set her apart from others in her world, but it also drew them to her. There was something mysterious and alluring about this distinguished Jewish woman who did not deny her tradition even if she did not practice it. It was not hard for Gentile society to welcome Lazarus into its midst. With her cultured manners and refined intelligence, she fit the best ideals of the ancient "Hebrew" nation as they imagined it, a world apart from the growing numbers of Jews appearing on the scene (Youth, 54).

By the 1870's, even before the arrival of the East Europeans, American Jews of both Sephardic and German descent had begun to feel themselves more vulnerable than ever before. Anti-Semitism had risen in Europe, particularly in Germany, and German American Jews, who had pointed with pride to the culture and spirit of enlightenment in their homeland, felt shocked and betrayed. More important, vibrations of anti-Jewish sentiment could be felt in the United States (Encarta, "NYC"). The growing sense of vulnerability coupled with the overwhelming presence of poor immigrants launched Lazarus into the Jewish scene.

Lazarus had dealt with some Jewish themes even before they became the focus of her energies in 1882. Most of her early work, however, centered on heroic subjects taken from ancient mythology and were little different from the poetry and prose appearing in many popular magazines. Even in the one poem, "Echoes," in which she examines her place as a writer, she maintains her conventional stance. As if to reassure the reader that she is not overstepping the role society assigned her, she refers to her poems as "echoes" of the more forceful subjects of male writers, her art "as veiled and screened by womanhood ("Echoes," line 5)."

Lazarus wrote the poem "Echoes" in 1880. The poem is a fourteen-line sonnet, written in iambic pentameter. As opposed to an Italian Sonnet, "Echoes" is a Shakespearean sonnet. As all conventional sonnets begin with an intro and a description of the subject, "Echoes" introduces the reader to the role suitable for women at the time. She states how women were not allowed to express their feelings or thoughts, for their womanhood barred them from doing so. In the third quatrain, Lazarus shifts to making her point. As if trying to live through the characters in her poems, Lazarus states that women should have the ability to speak their mind as they please. The poem seems to be elaborating on the poet herself. It is as if Lazarus woke up one day feeling victorious and powerful from being a shy, daddy's little girl.

Only when she threw herself wholeheartedly into her Jewish subject matter did those veils and screens begin to come down. Lazarus tackled the issue of anti-Semitism head on. Her poems and essays in The Century and other publications appealed to the non-Jewish public to recognize the part Christian prejudice and persecutions had played in creating a "Jewish Problem," where the Christians viewed the Jews as aliens who refused to relinquish either their religious beliefs or their group cliques. For Jews, the "problem" was the fact that others defined them as a problem (Encarta, "Jews"). Her writings in the Jewish magazines appealed to her own people to reform and renew themselves. With determination, she called on Jews to establish a national homeland in Palestine as a haven from anti-Semitism, and to that end she organized the Society for the improvement of East European Jews to help resettle victims of Russian oppression in Palestine (Jacob, 133).

No Jewish writer before had displayed such energy and verve. However, as observed through modern perspective, Lazarus is seen as a person writing from the outside, a person set apart from the people she sought to guide and aide, a defender of the Jews who is hardly one of them. Absorbed, with no religious affiliations of her own, she had little appreciation for the traditions and rituals that governed Jewish life in Eastern Europe for centuries. She viewed the immigrants as backward, their religion as "superstition." Her image of Jewish renewal was of a return to an idealized past, to that heroic biblical age that Christians so accepted. "The Banner of the Jew," a poem part of Lazarus's Songs of a Semite, portrays her feelings about the whole matter. 

"The Banner of the Jew" consists of five stanzas, each containing a quatrain and an ending couplet. Only a lover of the historical could have written this poem, by an imagination aroused by the myths of the Maccabees. During the Maccabean period, Judas Maccabeus revolted against Greek rule of Palestine to reclaim the Temple, rededicating it to the God of Israel (Encarta, "Maccabean Period"). The poem rises out of the historical situation and Lazarus's apprehension of what it means in human terms. It seems to be directed to the Jews of her time, telling them to rise up and take a stance, similar to the one taken by Maccabeus and his clan.

Wealthy and well bred, she had little understanding of the skills and culture the new arrivals brought with them. Concerned lest American Jews be seen as disloyal, she envisaged a Jewish homeland in Palestine only as a haven for the oppressed of other nations and not as a national center for all Jews. In making that distinction she also recognized that sending the improvished immigrants off to Palestine would ease the insecurity their presence caused American Jews (Young, 60). As sympathetic as she was to their plight, she needed to maintain the separateness of Jews like herself from them.

Lazarus's greatest accomplishment for the Jewish cause was her poem entitled "The New Colossus." It is an Italian sonnet written by Lazarus to express her belief in the United States as the haven or home of Europe's "poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe" the fresh air of democracy. The sonnet was written for a fundraiser for the building of the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the United States from France. The essence of the verse, however, seems to be an analysis of the Statue and the spirit of the gift.

"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!"

As the poem is formulated like the Italian sonnet, the first eight lines present an awe-embracing Statue, "A mighty woman with a torch." These eight lines symbolize the essence of the Statue itself while the concluding six lines present a turnabout, which elaborates on what the Stature stands for, what the State would say if it could talk. Lazarus choice of the title is an allusion to the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, a giant bronze statue of the Sun God Helios that had overlooked the Greek City's harbor. However, the Statue is "not like the brazen giant with conquering limbs astride from land to land," rather she is a mighty woman who welcomes the world, a mother of exiles. Furthermore, Lazarus personifies the Statue to state and popularize America's mission as a refuge for immigrants, one of America's great national policies.

In her own time, many saw her as a beacon of light, much like the Statue of Liberty itself, reaching out to downtrodden immigrants, the "wretched refuse" of other lands, in the words of her famous poem. Yet her work has not held up well over time. Except for her sonnet, it is mostly unknown and unread. It has not held up in part because her talent was not a major one (many of her poems are insubstantial; her essays too antagonistic). Essentially, however, it has not held up because much of it no longer rings true. Like her letters, her poems reflect the discomfort of a woman who was not totally at home in the Christian world she inhabited but had not quite found her footing in the Jewish one either. It has the feel of outsideness, of a writer who held herself too much apart, too much above the people she sought to defend and counsel. The outsideness has stood in the way of its survival.

Other poems by Emma Lazarus:


Late-born and woman-souled I dare not hope,
The freshness of the elder lays, the might
Of manly, modern, passion shall alight
Upon the Muse's lips, nor may I coupe
(Who veiled and screened by womanhood must grope)
The dangers, wounds, and triumphs of the fight;
Twanging in the full-stringed lyre through all its scope.
But if thou ever in some lake-floored cave
O'erbrowed by rocks, a wild voice wooed and heard,
Answering at once from heaven and earth and wave,
Lending elf-music to thy harshest word,
Misprize thou not these echoes that belong
To one in love with solitude and song.

"The Banner of the Jew"

Wake, Israel, wake! Recall to-day
The glorious Maccabean rage,
The sire, heroic, hoary-gray,
His five-fold lion-lineage:
The Wise, the Elect, the Help-of-God,
The Burst-of-Spring, the Avenging Rod.

From Mizeph's mountain-ridge they saw
Jerusalem's empty streets, her shrine
Laid waste where Greek profaned the Law,
With idol and with pagan sin.
Mourners in tattered black were there,
With ashes sprinkled on their hair.

Then from the stony peak there rang
A blast to ope the graves: down poured
The Maccabean clan, who sang
Their battle-anthem to the Lord.
Five heroes lead, and following, see
Ten thousand rush to victory!

Oh for Jerusalem's trumpet now,
To blow a blast of shattering power,
To wake the sleepers high and low,
And rouse them to the urgent hour!
No hand for vengence - but to save,
A million naked swords should wave.

Oh deem not dead that martial fire,
Say not the mystic flame is spent!
With Moses' law and David's lyre,
Your ancient strength remains unbent.
Let but an Ezra rise anew,
To lift the Banner of the Jew!

A rag, a mock at first - erelong,
When men have bled and women wept,
To guard its precious folds from wrong,
Even they who shrank, even they who slept,
Shall leap to bless it, and to save.
Strike! For the brave revere the brave!

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