A poet's gift personifies Liberty


Poetry: A sonnet is written for the statue's July Fourth dedication - and the rest, as they say, is history.

July 04, 2000|By Isaac Rehert | Isaac Rehert,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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.

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