The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty

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Today, the lines engraved in bronze on the base of the Statue of Liberty are almost as well-known as the statue itself. But the young woman who wrote “The New Colossus” and its famous verses—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—isn’t a household name, and not many know that the poem wasn’t originally destined for the statue itself.

“A POET OF RARE ORIGINAL POWER”

The New York Historical Society, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Born on July 22, 1849 to Esther and Moses Lazarus, Emma was the middle child in a group of seven. Her father—a rich sugar refiner who ranked among the founders of New York City’s Knickerbocker Club, an elite social group to which multiple Vanderbilts and Franklin Roosevelt would also later belong—was descended from some of the first Sephardic Jewish immigrants to land in the New World. (One of Emma’s great-great-uncles, Moses Seixas, is known for his powerful correspondence with George Washington on the topic of religious liberty.)

It was during her childhood in New York and Rhode Island that Lazarus fell in love with poetry, and in 1866, when she was 17, her father paid to have a collection of her original poems—plus some German language pieces that she’d translated into English—privately printed. The next year, the book was commercially published as Poems and Translations by Emma Lazarus Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Seventeen.

In 1868, Lazarus met—and impressed—one of her literary heroes, Ralph Waldo Emerson (then the most significant voice in America’s transcendentalism movement). The pair began corresponding, and Lazarus would come to regard Emerson as a good friend and mentor. “Mr. Emerson,” she once observed, “treats me with an almost fatherly affection.” In 1871, Lazarus published her second book, Admetus and Other Poems; she dedicated the titular poem “To My Friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson.”

By that point, Lazarus’s work was starting to garner international acclaim. In its review of Admetus and Other Poems, the Illustrated London News raved that “Miss Lazarus … must be hailed by impartial literary criticism as a poet of rare original power.” Similar praise was showered upon later works, including the 1874 novel Alide: An Episode of Goethe’s Life and poems published in various periodicals. By decade’s end, Lazarus had emerged as a well-known and highly respected writer on both sides of the Atlantic. Before long, she’d use her newfound fame to champion the cause of the tired, poor, and "huddled masses" who desperately needed sanctuary.

RIOTS IN RUSSIA

On March 13, 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated in the streets of St. Petersburg when a team of revolutionaries calling themselves the Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”) tossed a bomb at him. Since the Narodnaya Volya included at least one Jewish member, the czar’s death launched an epidemic of violent anti-Semitism throughout Russia and modern Ukraine. The situation got even worse in 1882, when Czar Alexander III canceled a huge number of land deeds held by Jews and forced half a million of them to relocate; he also forbade Jewish businessmen from trading on Sundays or Christian holidays, an edict that had immense financial consequences.

These measures and others like them kicked off a mass exodus of Russian Jews, with the vast majority heading to the United States. By 1914, around 1.5 million of these refugees had arrived in the U.S. [PDF].

Lazarus was extremely moved by their plight. “[Until] this cloud passes,” the poet said, “I have no thought, no passion, no desire, save for my own people.” In the 1880s, she dedicated a number of published essays and poems to Russia’s Jews and Jewish immigrants. When she wasn’t supporting them with her pen, she personally assisted any refugees she could find. At a Manhattan branch of the philanthropic Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society, Lazarus gave free English lessons to newly arrived families. Elsewhere, she’d visit those whom immigration officials had quartered in overstuffed—and highly unsanitary—barracks on Ward’s Island.

While the poet was keeping herself busy in New York, a gift for the United States was being constructed more than 3600 miles away.

“THE GODDESS OF LIBERTY STANDING ON HER PEDESTAL”

In the 1860s, France had decided to celebrate her long and (mostly) peaceful relationship with the U.S. by sending an impressive new statue to the American people. Designed by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the tribute was to take the form of a giant, crowned woman clad in robes and hoisting a torch. Both nations agreed that the French would finance the statue itself while America secured the funding for its base, which would be built on Bedloe’s Island (now known as Liberty Island).

Part of the money the U.S. required was raised during a raffle at the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition. Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and other legendary artists donated works. Lazarus, too, was asked if she’d create something for the fundraiser. At first, she declined. “[I] could not possibly write verses to order,” she explained. However, a chairwoman by the name of Constance Cary Harrison convinced Lazarus to change her mind.

“Think of the goddess of liberty,” Harrison wrote in a letter to Lazarus, “standing on her pedestal yonder in the bay and holding the torch out to those refugees you are so fond of visiting at Ward’s Island.” The plea worked: Lazarus agreed to put a poem together. Two days later, she submitted a 105-word sonnet called “The New Colossus.”

When auction day came, Lazarus's poem sold for $1500 (about $37,000 today). After that, it was published as part of a souvenir literary portfolio that Harrison distributed. It had a number of fans, including poet James Russell Lowell, who told Lazarus “I liked your sonnet about the statue much better than I like the statue itself … your sonnet gives its subject its raison d’être which it wanted before quite as much as it wanted a pedestal.” But due to the sonnet’s very limited release, “The New Colossus” didn't attract a mainstream audience—at least, not at first. Unfortunately, Lazarus wouldn't live to see her poem get its due.

REDISCOVERING A MASTERPIECE

The Statue of Liberty herself finally arrived in New York Harbor on June 17, 1885. At the dedication ceremony over a year later, “The New Colossus” was not recited; in fact, the immigration issue was barely mentioned in any of the addresses given that day. At the time, the statue was seen more squarely as a symbol of the friendship between France and America, particularly as allies in the American Revolution; it was also seen as an affirmation of republican ideals and a celebration of the end of slavery. The explicit connection to immigrants, in the minds of the general public, came only later—in large part thanks to Lazarus's words.

Lazarus had spent that fall in Paris, and by the time she returned to New York the next year, she’d contracted what eventually became a terminal illness—suspected to be lymphoma. She died on November 19, 1887, at just 38. When she died, it looked like her poem might be little remembered. In its obituary for Lazarus, The New York Times neglected to reference or acknowledge the now-famous sonnet.

With Lazarus's death, it seemed that "The New Colossus" would fade into obscurity. But it didn't, thanks to the efforts of philanthropist and art aficionado Georgina Schuyler—one of Lazarus’s closest friends, and, as it happened, a direct descendant of Alexander Hamilton. In 1901, Schuyler started lobbying to have “The New Colossus” engraved onto a bronze plaque and affixed to Lady Liberty’s base as a tribute to her friend. Two years later, she got her wish. The sonnet was subsequently rediscovered during the 1930s by those pushing for the U.S. to welcome Jewish refugees then trying to flee Hitler.

As “The New Colossus” rose in popularity, so too did the woman who had penned it. In 1944, an organization called the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs was established. A progressive, social justice-oriented coalition, its activist members took to celebrating the poet’s birthday every year on Liberty Island. Since then, Lazarus has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and her best-known poem has been frequently cited in American debates over immigration.

Today, Lady Liberty and “The New Colossus” are joined at the hip, and we're more likely to remember the statue as a welcome to immigrants than as a tribute to the French-American relationship. To quote biographer Esther Schor, “You can’t think of the statue without hearing the words Emma Lazarus gave her.”

This story originally ran in 2017.

Get Into the Halloween Spirit With Harry Potter and Star Wars Costumes and Accessories From Hot Topic

Hot Topic
Hot Topic

Halloween is fast approaching, and that means it's time to start picking up those decorations, planning your costume, and settling down for a few monster movie marathons. Hot Topic is already way ahead of you, with a selection of costumes and accessories based on fan-favorite movies and TV shows like Harry Potter, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Stranger Things, and Hocus Pocus. We've picked out some of our favorites for you to check out below.

Harry Potter

1. Beauxbatons Hat and Cape Uniform; $60

Hot Topic

If Fleur Delacour is your favorite character from the Triwizard Tournament, then this look is for you. Beauxbatons baby blue hat and cape can now be yours to prance around in and pretend you're from the magical French academy for young witches.

Buy it: Beauxbatons Hat, Beauxbatons Cape

2. Hogwarts Zip-Up Hoodie Cloak; $55

Hot Topic

One of the most iconic parts of the Hogwarts uniform is the cloak. The sweeping black robes looked so official and mystical in the movies that it almost seems wrong not to wear one if you want to be a Hogwarts student for Halloween. These hoodie cloaks are available in all four house colors.

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3. Hogwarts Cardigan Sweater; $49

Hot Topic

Much like the cloak, the sweater vests and cardigans the students at Hogwarts got to wear are essential to any costume. You can choose from the four house crests and colors, so you can show your allegiance while also making a fashion statement.

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4. Hogwarts Plaid Skirtall; $45

Hot Topic

Though this isn't a look you'd recognize from the Harry Potter movies, these plaid skirtalls—skirt overalls, basically—feature the crest and colors of whichever house you represent.

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Star Wars

1. The Mandalorian Helmet; $17

Hot Topic

With the second season of The Mandalorian coming out right in time for Halloween, going as one of the show's main characters is a no-brainer. And since you probably can't pull off the Baby Yoda look, this simple Mando helmet is your best option.

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2. Yoda Pet Costume; $20

Hot Topic

Baby Yoda is easily the cutest thing to emerge from the new Disney+ series, and there's no shortage of merchandise with that little green face plastered across it. From Amazon Echo Dots to slippers to LEGO sets, the little rascal is everywhere. But if you're more a fan of classic Yoda, you can impose your love of the character on your dog with this costume, complete with floppy green ears and tiny Jedi robe.

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3. The Force Awakens Rey Costume; $48

Hot Topic

Rey represents a new generation of Star Wars hero, and her costume during her time on Jakku from The Force Awakens is still her most iconic look. It's also a costume that's simple enough to throw on for Halloween and still feel comfortable in.

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4. R2-D2 with Pumpkin Decoration; $50

Hot Topic

When trick-or-treaters stop to collect candy from your house, greet them with this inflatable R2-D2 decoration that's primed for Halloween. Standing around 3 feet tall, this will show off your love for a galaxy far, far away and your holiday spirit.

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The Nightmare Before Christmas

1. Sally Scrunchies Set; $10

Hot Topic

If you're looking to embrace your The Nightmare Before Christmas love in a more subtle way, opt for these Sally-approved scrunchies that embody the colors of the movie without going too far overboard.

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2. Jack Skellington Button-Up Shirt; $35

Hot Topic

If Jack Skellington is your ultimate fashion hero, then this button-up pinstriped shirt is the ticket for you. It mimics Jack's look right down to the unique bat-shaped collar.

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3. Jack and Sally 'Love is Eternal' Eyeshadow Palette; $17

Hot Topic

Makeup inspired by your favorite characters is the key to completing a Halloween look, and this palette will help you make a colorful, smokey eye featuring shades seen in The Nightmare Before Christmas. You can even use these colors long after Halloween is over once you've mastered your favorite style.

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4. Zero Dog Costume; $29

Hot Topic

The real star of The Nightmare Before Christmas has to be the dog, Zero, and now you can drape your own pooch in the ghostly visage for under $30.

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Other Categories

- Stranger Things
- Coraline
- Disney
- Haunted Mansion
- Hocus Pocus
- The Craft

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Did the Northern Lights Play a Role in the Sinking of the Titanic? A New Paper Says It’s Possible

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912, is the most famous maritime disaster in history. The story has been retold countless times, but experts are still uncovering new details about what happened that night more than a century later. The latest development in our understanding of the event has to do with the northern lights. As Smithsonian reports, the same solar storm that produced an aurora over the North Atlantic waters where the Titanic sank may have caused equipment malfunctions that led to its demise.

Independent Titanic researcher Mila Zinkova outlines the new theory in a study published in the journal Weather. Survivors and eyewitnesses from the night of the Titanic's sinking reported seeing the aurora borealis light up the dark sky. James Bisset, second officer of the ship that responded to the Titanic's distress calls, the RMS Carpathia, wrote in his log: "There was no moon, but the aurora borealis glimmered like moonbeams shooting up from the northern horizon."

Zinkova argues that while the lights themselves didn't lead the Titanic on a crash course with the iceberg, a solar storm that night might have. The northern lights are the product of solar particles colliding and reacting with gas molecules in Earth's atmosphere. A vivid aurora is the result of a solar storm expelling energy from the sun's surface. In addition to causing colorful lights to appear in the sky, solar storms can also interfere with magnetic equipment on Earth.

Compasses are susceptible to electromagnetic pulses from the sun. Zinkova writes that the storm would have only had to shift the ship's compass by 0.5 degrees to guide it off a safe course and toward the iceberg. Radio signals that night may have also been affected by solar activity. The ship La Provence never received the Titanic's distress call, despite its proximity. The nearby SS Mount Temple picked it up, but their response to the Titanic went unheard. Amateur radio enthusiasts were initially blamed for jamming the airwaves used by professional ships that night, but the study posits that electromagnetic waves may have played a larger role in the interference.

If a solar storm did hinder the ship's equipment that night, it was only one condition that led to the Titanic's sinking. A cocktail of factors—including the state of the sea, the design of the ship, and the warnings that were ignored—ultimately sealed the vessel's fate.

[h/t Smithsonian]