The New Colossus
Have students read aloud The New Colossus.
Read online with imagery here
“The New Colossus” is a sonnet written by American poet Emma Lazarus in 1883 in support of raising money to build the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. The statue was dedicated in 1886, and in 1903 a plaque with the text of “The New Colossus” was mounted on the inner wall of the pedestal. Since then, Lazarus’s poem has been closely associated with the Statue of Liberty.
Have you read this poem before? If not, are you familiar with parts of it? Which parts? Students may be most familiar with the last five lines, which are the most famous.
What is this poem about? Why it is famous? This poem is about the Statue of Liberty, and it appears on a bronze plaque inside the statue’s pedestal. Along with the Statue of Liberty itself, it has become a well-known symbol of immigration to the United States.
How does this poem portray the Statue of Liberty? To what extent do you think this characterization of the Statue of Liberty (and of the United States) is accurate? The Statue of Liberty is portrayed as a “mother of exiles” who enthusiastically welcomes the world’s poor and downtrodden to the United States. Student responses may vary regarding the accuracy of this portrayal.
The United States has often been called a “nation of immigrants.” Several Founding Fathers (e.g., Alexander Hamilton) were immigrants themselves, and the rest were descendants of immigrants. Today most Americans trace at least part of their family history to another area of the world.
“The New Colossus” is the Statue of Liberty, which Lazarus contrasts with the ancient Colossus of Rhodes (“the brazen giant of Greek fame”), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The “sea-washed, sunset gates” (line 3) are the mouths of the Hudson and East Rivers, to the west of Brooklyn.
The “imprisoned lightning” (line 5) refers to the electric light in the Statue of Liberty’s torch, which in 1883 was a novelty.
The “air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame” (line 8) refers to New York Harbor between New York City and Brooklyn, which were separate cities in 1883. They were consolidated in 1898, 15 years after the poem was written.
The “huddled masses” (line 11) are the many immigrants coming to the United States, many of them through Ellis Island at the port of New York.
This poem is a “Petrarchan sonnet.” Its 14 lines are written in iambic pentameter and follow a strict rhyme scheme, notated below.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, a
With conquering limbs astride from land to land; b
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand b
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame a
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name a
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand b
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command b
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. a
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she c
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, d
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, c
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. d
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, c
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” d
Statue of Liberty
Engraving, The Colossus of Rhodes, Wikimedia Commons, public domain image.