Poetry News

Reading Closely the Story of Emma Lazarus's 'The New Colossus'

By Harriet Staff
Statue of Liberty

The Atlantic gives us the story behind Emma Lazarus's 1883 sonnet “The New Colossus,” the words of which have "seemed more visible since Donald Trump’s election." More, from poet and scholar Walt Hunter:

A little like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” published in 1916, “The New Colossus” is one of those poems that is constantly rediscovered and recontextualized. Whether the popularity of “The New Colossus” is a consequence of the poem’s timelessness, its curious forgettability, or its “schmaltzy” sincerity, writers, readers, and politicians resurrect Lazarus’s sonnet to speak directly to a present moment in which anti-black racism, xenophobia, immigration bans, and refugee crises define the terms of U.S. and European political discourse.

The story of the poem’s creation has circulated almost as widely as the lines of Lazarus’s poem. The Jewish Lazarus was a prolific writer in multiple genres, a political activist, a translator, and an associate of late-19th-century literati—from Ralph Waldo Emerson to James Russell Lowell. She wrote the sonnet, after some persuasion by friends, for an auction to raise money for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. But the details of the poem’s production and of its author’s biography do not fully capture the conditions under which the poem emerged, conditions that help to explain the poem’s message to its immiserated masses.

Read on at The Atlantic. And of course you should recall the interpretive brouhaha last August between the White House and CNN reporter Jim Acosta over the meaning and spirit of the poem.

Originally Published: January 17th, 2018