A poet's gift personifies Liberty


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!

Millions of people are familiar with these words and their association with the Statue of Liberty - their proclamation that America is the haven for the oppressed and the freedom-seeking.

The 305-foot-high copper statue of the woman holding aloft the beacon of freedom over New York harbor has become the material symbol of liberty through much of the world.

But far fewer Americans know that those welcoming words - engraved on a plaque over the entrance to the Statue of Liberty - are a portion of a larger poem, a sonnet called "The New Colossus."

And though the poet, Emma Lazarus, is not altogether unknown, hers is hardly a household name. Yet the story of this poet, how she came to write the poem and its association with the statue warrants retelling - especially on Independence Day, the anniversary of its official donation.

The statue, a gift from the French on July 4, 1886, to the American people, was intended for the U.S. Centennial, which was to be celebrated at a World's Fair in Philadelphia in 1876. The project turned out to be bigger than anyone imagined and was finally dedicated, with much fanfare and fireworks, 10 years later.

It was the brainchild of two Frenchmen, Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye, a politician and law professor, and Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor who designed it. The statue they conceived was to be called "Liberty Enlightening the World."

Funding was to be entirely nongovernmental. The French undertook to raise the money for the statue. The huge stone pedestal that would have to be built to support the immense structure was to be paid for by Americans.

"The New Colossus" was Lazarus' contribution to the American fund-raising campaign.

But neither the poem nor the poet was acknowledged at the time of the dedication. The poem had been lost. As for the poet, this was the Victorian era, when women were largely kept hidden away to "protect" them. Only in the rarest instances were women included or acknowledged in public functions.

Emma Lazarus was a shy, dark-haired, dark-eyed daughter of a wealthy Jewish New York industrialist. Her father's ancestors had come to America in 1654 after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Her mother's forebears came from Germany at the beginning of the 1700s.

She was born on July 29, 1849. As was common among the wealthy at that time, she led a sheltered life, home educated by her doting father. She played the piano, studied French and German as well as English, and began writing verses at an early age. Although she lived through the Civil War, she had little direct contact with the political issues, the institution of slavery or the bloodshed of the battlefield.

Her early poems were mostly about the beauties of nature or translations of Victor Hugo and Heinrich Heine.

She became a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and on a visit to his home at Concord, Mass., met the intellectuals of that society. Her poems were published in Lippincott's and Scribner's magazines, and she wrote a novel based on the life of the German poet Goethe.

Until 1881, there was little in her life suggesting "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Although the lot of the newly emancipated slaves in the South was precarious, and although the streets and tenements of New York were cesspools of poverty, dreariness and misery, Emma remained untouched.

It took events on the opposite side of the world to explode her complacency. In 1881, Czar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated by a Nihilist group; his successor, Alexander III, blamed the Jews. He instituted a series of persecutions called pogroms, which is Russian for devastation or destruction.

The result was an exodus, a flood of emigrants, most headed for the United States. Those who arrived had lost everything.

This tidal wave of destitute immigrants might never have touched the aristocratic Lazarus in her gilded cocoon but for a chance visit to a processing center where they were being housed. Jewish leaders in New York were concerned about the condition of the immigrants, and one day one of the leaders invited Emma to accompany him to the center.

What she saw appalled her. People were so jammed together that there was no room to sit or lie down, even on the bare floor. There were inadequate toilet facilities and few sources of running water. Photographs suggest how she might have come up with the image of "huddled masses."

For the first time, she became aware of the persecution of her fellow Jews. She turned her considerable verbal talents to fighting prejudice. She learned Hebrew and translated the works of medieval Jewish poets. She wrote articles for magazines, decrying the events in Russia and seeking to arouse public opinion against them.

Meanwhile, construction of the gigantic statue was progressing in France. But in America, the campaign to pay for the pedestal was languishing. The committee, headed by William M. Evarts, former secretary of state, felt embarrassed that after receiving such a warm gift from the French people, Americans should be unwilling to pay for its pedestal.

When he heard of the situation, publisher Joseph Pulitzer, who had emigrated from Hungary to fight for the Union in the Civil War, made the cause a front-page issue. Thousands of dollars were collected.

But it was not enough. So, as is done today, the committee, which included Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and John Burroughs, sponsored an auction, to which artists and poets were invited to donate a work, the proceeds to go for the cause.

Lazarus was one of the poets; her work was "The New Colossus." The poem was included in a portfolio with numerous others, which were read aloud at the auction.

Lazarus received a letter from James Russell Lowell, the poet then serving as envoy to England, who wrote, "I like your sonnet about the statue, much better than I like the statue itself." But there was no other acknowledgement. The portfolio was purchased by a man named Lydig Suydam for $1,500, and then it disappeared.

Now there was enough money for the pedestal, and the statue, in crated pieces, arrived from France and was assembled, erected and dedicated on Oct. 28, 1886.

Lazarus had not been invited to the celebration, and her sonnet was not read. At the time, no one knew where the portfolio was.

Lazarus had become gravely ill. While gaining a reputation as "a soul dedicated to aiding the oppressed," she was stricken with incurable cancer. Just a year after the dedication, on Nov. 19, 1887, she died, at the age of 38.

So now the Statue of Liberty stood extending its welcome without the immortal words that could give meaning to its mission.

One day in 1903, Georgina Schuyler was browsing in a used-book shop in New York when she came upon the portfolio of poems that had been auctioned to help pay for the pedestal. Among them was "The New Colossus," and she recognized its value immediately.

A person of influence, she arranged to have the last five lines of the sonnet engraved on a plaque, which, without fanfare or ceremony, was placed inside the second story of the statue's pedestal.

In the 1930s, textbooks began publicizing the poem and schoolchildren were taught to recite it. It gained a nationwide audience. Then in 1945, after World War II, when new floods of refugees poured into America, the plaque was removed and an engraving of the entire sonnet was placed over the statue's main entrance.

A tablet bearing the last lines graces the customs entrance to John F. Kennedy International Airport, where many people arrive in New York today.

A contemporary wag, in a twist of an adage, once said: "The right word is worth a thousand pictures." The poet Lowell, in his letter to Lazarus said it more eloquently. "Your sonnet gives its subject a raison d'etre ... saying admirably just the right word, an achievement more arduous than that of the sculptor."

Today, with the new spurt of immigration from all over the world, the poem by Emma Lazarus is endowing the Statue of Liberty with an even deeper, more significant meaning than when it was conceived.

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