The New Colossus

“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

Especially in these times of global migration, chances are you already know that these lines are from the famous poem associated with the Statue of Liberty. Here is what else you should know to join the conversation.

The poem is an immigrant-friendly sonnet called “The New Colossus” that American poet Emma Lazarus (1849–1887) wrote in 1883 to raise money for the construction of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. In 1903, the poem was engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal’s lower level. Specifically, the poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, which means it has two sections of 8 lines and 6 lines and a prescribed rhyming scheme.

Here is the poem in full:

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!”

Here are five things you should know about The New Colussus:

  • The title of the poem and the first two lines refer to the “old” Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
  • The “sea-washed, sunset gates” refer to the mouths of the Hudson and the East River.
  • The “imprisoned lightning” refers to the electric light in the torch, at the time a novelty.
  • The “air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame” refers to New York Harbor between New York City and Brooklyn, which were two separate cities until they were consolidated in 1898, 15 years after the poem was written.
  • The “huddled masses” are the immigrants coming through Ellis Island at the port of New York.

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