Inscribed on what is perhaps America’s most famous landmark and certainly one of its most treasured, is this: “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!”
The lines were taken from The New Colossus, a poem written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus after a trip to Europe. Born in New York in 1849 to a large family of Spanish-Jewish ancestry, Lazarus came from a relatively wealthy background and was well-educated. At the precocious age of 17, her father Moses arranged for her first collection of poems to be published in private circles.
She attracted considerable attention in the literary world, staying as the guest of the Brownings in London, meeting William Morris and corresponding with her fellow American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson throughout her life.
Although she grew up secular and remained irreligious her whole life, after reading George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, she became interested in her Jewish heritage and began learning about the pogroms and antisemitic in the Pale of Settlement, later teaching Jewish immigrants in Manhattan.
Her most notable Jewish work, Songs of a Semite was published in 1882. The collection featured The Dance to Death, dedicated to Eliot, "who did most among the artists of our day towards elevating and ennobling the spirit of Jewish nationality".
Before Theodore Herzl spoke of it, Lazarus was a Zionist. In an 1883 essay she expressed the view that there was a "Jewish Problem" and that Jews eternally “seem fated to excite the antagonism of their fellow countrymen." Her solution was the founding of a state by Jews for Jews in Palestine.
She died young, of what experts believe was cancer, in 1887 and was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Brooklyn. She never saw her famous words on the Statue of Liberty – although it was dedicated in 1886, the plaque was not mounted until 1903.
What the JC said: It is to be regretted that her name is not better known today and her work more widely read…no Jewish poet of our own day, writing in English, has risen to the level of her achievement….her earliest poems were inspired by patriotism; when her art had matured she wrote several striking poems on American themes and she advocated the cultivation of a distinctive native art and literature. Mythological and classic subjects appealed to her, and of those she wrote with cameo-like perfection.
See more from the JC archives here