The cascading events surrounding the notorious “relocation” of scores of South American migrants from Florida and Texas to the Northeast is as shocking as it is historically familiar. I was especially shocked when I realized how those relocations have tarnished bedrock American ideals in the name of political grandstanding.
Those ideals were never more poignantly described than in a single poem whose title is all but forgotten but whose message has never been.
“The New Colossus” was a sonnet written by a wealthy New York poet in the late nineteenth century. The poem was offered as part of a fundraising effort to literally support the pedestal of a gigantic gift from France to this country: the Statue of Liberty.
Even if you’ve never read the entire poem, (and few of us ever have) the lines “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” should be familiar. There may be no more succinct or accurate depiction of what America has stood for to its millions of immigrants.
The poet was Emma Lazarus. She was a writer of some renown who was deeply active in defending the plight of immigrants fleeing hostile European governments.
Contemporary poet Austin Allen, writing in Poetry magazine, that hostility was as obvious then as it is now: “At the time of its writing in 1883, European immigrants — including Italians, Greeks, and Russian-Jewish refugees — were arriving en masse in America, stirring fierce debate and frequent hostility among “natives” (as U.S.-born descendants of earlier European immigrants called themselves).”
Lazarus’s writings won praise from the cognoscenti, but it was quickly forgotten. She died in 1887 at the age of 38, presumably of cancer.
Years later, a friend found a copy of “The New Colossus” poem in a bookshop. The friend launched a campaign to memorialize it. Twenty years after she wrote it, Lazarus’s sonnet was cast in bronze and finally placed in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
I could go on and on about Lazarus and poem and the statue’s history. It seems to me to be a deathless depiction of hope in what is commonly called the American Dream. Those who gleefully trash that hope in the name of patriotism deserve to be remembered as defilers of the dream.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe I’ve been so soaked in anger and resentment of immigrants over the years that I’ve lost critical balance.
In which case, I’d like to further present my case in the court of public opinion. Please read “The New Colossus” and decide for yourself whether a forgotten poet’s greatest work seems to you, as it does to me, an immigrant’s undying song of hope.
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!”