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!"
Note: A recitation can be heard here.
An ocean away, a particularly repugnant brand of vitriol against immigrants has galvanized the Republican electorate; closer to home, Pegida has claimed successes from its ongoing protests as the member states of the European Union have begun to delimit immigration drastically and tack unmistakably toward the politically safer shores of the xenophobic right.
Such a moment in time is hardly unprecedented: A century and a half ago, the United States, mostly through the port of New York, absorbed massive numbers of people through successive waves of migration. And while this dismayed some members of the literati—Henry James, for example, in The American Scene expressed concerns that the country’s resources would be unduly and dangerously taxed—others, like Emma Lazarus, whole-heartedly embraced the cause of the newcomers.
“The New Colossus” was written to help raise funds to build a pedestal of granite strong enough to support the 225-ton gift from France, for the U.S. government offered no financial support whatsoever, so private donations alone—many in the form of pennies from schoolchildren—enabled the project to be completed: Lazarus’ poem, sold as a broadsheet (and published in an anthology), added both to the fundraising goals as well as the public relations aspect of what came to be known as the Statue of Liberty.
“The New Colossus” is as intricately wrought as Eiffel and Bartholdi’s celebrated, iron-girded design. Looking at the structure alone, we note that the two stanzas—an octave and a sestet—are comprised of fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter, making this a classic Petrarchan sonnet. Traditionally, this asymmetrical pairing, like the two sides of a coin (cf. Rossetti’s “The Sonnet”), offers the reader a silent dialogue, a statement tethered to its own qualification (or even outright refutation).
Lazarus’ inspiration to write of the future sculpture through this storied genre, which was once reserved solely for the expression of unrequited love (cf. Shakespeare’s sonnets), seems two-fold: The now-anonymous, commemorative poem affixed to the Colossus of Rhodes—a thirty-meter sculpture in bronze of Helios, the Sun god, completed in 280 BCE to become one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—which (translated into prose) read:
"To you, O Sun, the people of Dorian Rhodes set up this bronze statue reaching to Olympus, when they had pacified the waves of war and crowned their city with the spoils taken from the enemy. Not only over the seas but also on land did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom and independence. For to the descendants of Herakles belongs dominion over sea and land."
And Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (from 1818), itself a famous Petrarchan sonnet:
I met a traveller from an antique land
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Brazenly, Lazarus employs only four end-rhymes (/em/, /ænd/; /ɔr/, /i/) in the service of the entire poem and eschews the Petrarchan sestet’s traditional, tripartite pattern (of cdecde for the more cadenced cdcdcd)—thereby enabling the octave to toggle between two voiced nasals that propel the enjambments forward while it complements a sestet proffering a startling pairing of contrastive phonemes. Read aloud, this artful construction deliberately redoubles the echoes that depict the stately grandeur of the Mother of Exiles while emphasizing her percussive rhetoric’s ascendant power in the apostrophe’s imperative.