Poetry News

The New York Times Looks Closely at the Fascinating Emma Lazarus

By Harriet Staff


The New York Times's Edward Rothstein takes an in-depth look at "Emma Lazarus: Poet of Exiles," an exhibition currently up at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Lazarus (1849–1887) is mostly known for her commemorative poem "The New Colossus," dedicated to our Lady Liberty in 1883 (and transforming her, as the Times writes, "from an aggressive monument — 'Liberty Enlightening the World' — into a welcoming 'Mother of Exiles'"). To refresh your memory, the poem reads:

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!"

An "interactive" and "annotated" version can be found here (woah). Anyhow, the poem was not actually mounted on the statue itself until 1903, "after lobbying by influential friends." Rothstein continues: "And it didn’t become popularly associated with it until after the 1920s, a decade when many restrictions were put on how many “tempest-tost” souls should be annually admitted." But the poem is not all there is: "In fact, so many illuminating sparks are set off by this show, mounted in celebration of the statue’s 125th anniversary, that its closing section about Lady Liberty comes as an anticlimax."

Rothstein also looks at the personal history of Lazarus, tracing her roots to "elite Sephardic Jewish families who were leaders of the first synagogues established in New York, Philadelphia and Newport, R.I."; her cousins included Associate Justice Nathan Cardozo of the Supreme Court and Annie Nathan Meyer, a founder of Barnard College. "Lazarus, born in New York City in 1849, must have been able to take many things for granted; few could claim a more distinguished association with the United States or with the Jewish population within it":

She must have also been something of a prodigy. Her father published her first book of poetry before she was 18. And though some lines are dewy with Romantic mannerism, the compilation was impressive enough for the 65-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson to welcome an association with this young poet. (“I should like to be appointed your professor,” he wrote to her, “you being required to attend the whole term.”)

It is difficult to sort out the peculiarities of that eccentric relationship, along with several others in which Lazarus combined an acolyte’s submission with prideful assertion. But her ambitions led her to the heart of American literary culture. She visited Walden Pond with Thoreau’s biographer, William Ellery Channing, who presented her with Thoreau’s compass. Walt Whitman’s biographer, John Burroughs, showed the older poet her work (which he praised).

Lazarus also found a place in salons, including a Newport-based club overseen by Emily Dickinson’s mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The exhibition design evokes a weekly New York salon, where a couple who were Lazarus’s lifelong friends, Richard Watson Gilder and his wife, Helena, held court. We learn too of Lazarus’s European travels, where she met Robert Browning, Henry James and William Morris.

Rothstein also discovers the experiences out of which "The New Collosus" took shape, including Lazarus's devotion to the thousands of Jewish refugees entering the U.S. at the time and her furious poetic response to the "reign of terror" against Jews that took place during the 1882 Russian pogroms. He elaborates on her devotion:

[S]he did not consider Judaism incidental to her poetry or her life. Longfellow, for example, in his 1854 poem “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” evokes a long-dead world that he thinks is deservedly so:

The mystic volume of the world they read,

Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book,

Till life became a Legend of the Dead.

Lazarus, visiting the same place in 1867, signed a visitors’ register (shown here) and wrote her poetic response, “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport.” Though there are no signs of life, she imagines its worshipers once “found their comfort” there. And her final lines are reverential, chastising, perhaps, her predecessor:

Take off your shoes as by the burning bush,

Before the mystery of death and God.

“The truth is,” she wrote in 1883, “that every Jew has to crack for himself this hard nut of his peculiar position in a non-Jewish community.” She began writing regularly for the journal The American Hebrew and began to study Hebrew. She published “Songs of a Semite” and dedicated the book to George Eliot, whose novel “Daniel Deronda” hit her with the force of revelation. Its story of a British aristocrat discovering his Jewish origins and devoting himself to a Zionist cause kindled Lazarus’s interest in “Jewish repatriation” and “self-emancipation.”

Read the full review here. “Emma Lazarus: Poet of Exiles” is on view through Summer 2012 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, Battery Park City, Lower Manhattan; mjhnyc.org.

Originally Published: January 4th, 2012