Emma Lazarus: “A Mighty Woman With a Torch”
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Send these homeless, tempest-tossed to me!”
After the attacks of 9/11, there arose a question about the role of immigrants. It would be unthinkable to compare the atrocities of insane, misbegotten terrorists with the millions of poor, forlorn refugees that found their way to these shores over the past two centuries (including yours truly at age ten).
On October 28, 1886, as if to underscore this point, the French people donated the Statue of Liberty to commemorate the American and French Revolutions (hence, La Liberté). French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi designed it, and the designer/engineer Gustave Eiffel built the metal framework.
She is based on a Roman goddess, Libertas. In her left hand is a tablet inscribed ‘July 4, 1776’ in Roman numerals), the date of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. At her feet lie a broken shackle and chain commemorating our national abolition of slavery. The French financed the statue and gave the U.S. responsibility for the site and pedestal. As usual, there was a money problem. The call went out to Emma Lazarus.
Lazarus was rich. As a young woman, she had become a leading American poet of the nineteenth century. She also happened to be pretty, smart, outspoken, and well-educated. Most of all, Lazarus was a compassionate soul who cared about those less fortunate. The fundraising committee approached her and asked her to compose a poem for the statue.
Born to a wealthy family, Lazarus began writing as a teenager when her father privately printed her first poetry in 1866. Her works included translations of Goethe, Heine (still considered the best in English), Dumas, Hugo, and Schiller. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a close friend who influenced her and to whom her book of poetry is dedicated.
At first, she declined the committee’s offer. Her work on behalf of Jewish refugees from eastern Europe, victims of Russian pogroms that followed Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881, consumed all her time. The brutal violence that descended on people because of their religion galvanized her passion to help. She soon reconsidered her decision, and as a result the statue became a beacon of concern and empathy for immigrants.
It was to the indigent immigrants that her sonnet, The New Colossus, was dedicated. The iconic lines: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are inscribed on a plaque in its museum. She wrote the poem in 1883 and donated it to “the Bartholdi Fund for the Statue of Liberty” to raise funds for the pedestal. Her gesture memorialized her purpose in life more than she would ever realize.
Four years later, Lazarus returned seriously ill after a trip to Europe and died shortly from Hodgkin’s lymphoma on November 19, 1887, at age 37. She never married, nor did she live to see her poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, yet in her way she was a mighty woman with a torch.
In 2009, more than one hundred years later, Emma Lazarus was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.