by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
ONCE UPON A TIME, in a country so big that it stretched for many miles, all the way between two oceans, a woman wrote a poem. This poem was put in the base of a statue that became very famous because it was the first thing that people saw when they came on ships to the biggest city in the big country.
Year after year, people who were poor, or had lost their homes because neighbors were fighting neighbors in the country where they were born, wanted to come to the big country. Sometimes, the mean people in the big country wouldn’t let them in, but other times, the kind people remembered the words in the statue, and welcomed the people who needed help or a new place to call home.
You see, even though the big country was very big, and had lots of room, and lots of food and money, it was still like the other countries. Because anywhere you go, there will be mean people and kind people, and mean things happen when the mean people are running a country, and kind things happen when the kind people run it.
Forgive me for starting this week’s Word Cloud as a fable for little children. Thinking about little children is keeping me up at night, and the famous words enshrined at the Statue of Liberty are very much on my mind.
Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) wrote The New Colossus, the poem which contains the lines so often quoted when immigration is talked about in America. She was born in New York City on July 22 in 1849, the year that outgoing U.S. President James K. Polk became the first president to have his photograph taken while in office, incoming President Zachary Taylor refused to take his oath of office on a Sunday, and thousands of ‘49ers’ were joining the California Gold Rush.
Most people only know the last lines, but here is the whole sonnet Emma Lazarus wrote:
The New Colossus
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!”
Emma Lazarus was born into a large Sephardic Jewish family, the fourth of seven children. Her father was a wealthy merchant, a descendant of early Jewish emigrants who came from Portugal and Germany. Her mother, Esther Nathan Lazarus was also from a prominent Jewish family, which included Grace Seixas Nathan, a poet born in New York City in 1752, and Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, who would become an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court (1932-1938). Her great-great uncle, Moses Seixas, another successful merchant, wrote a letter to newly-elected President George Washington congratulating the President, and expressing his hopes for the Jewish people in this new country. In Washington’s gracious reply, the President declared, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
From early childhood on, Lazarus was privately educated by tutors, studying American and British literature, and several languages, including German, French, and Italian. She began writing poetry at the age of eleven, just as the American Civil War was about to erupt. It would be the subject of several of her early poems.
The Day of Dead Soldiers
WELCOME, thou gray and fragrant Sabbath-day,
To deathless love and valor dedicate!
Glorious with the richest flowers of May,
With early roses, lingering lilacs late,
With vivid green of grass and leaf and spray,
Thou bringest memories that far outweigh
The season’s joy with thoughts of death and fate.
What words may paint the picture on the air
Of this broad land to-day from sea to sea?
The rolling prairies, purple valleys rare,
And royal mountains, endless rivers free,
Filled full with phantoms flitting everywhere,
Pale ghosts of buried armies, slowly there
From countless graves uprising silently.
A calm, grave day,—the sunlight does not shine
But thin, gray clouds bedrape the sky o’erhead.
The delicate air is filled with spirits fine,
The temperate breezes whisper of the dead.
What visions and what memories divine,
O holy Sabbath flower-day, are thine,
Painted in light against a field of red!
Behold the fairest spots in all the land,
To-day in this mid-season of fresh flowers,
Are heroes’ graves, —by many a tender hand
Sprinkled With odorous, radiant-colored showers;
By mild, moist breezes delicately fanned,
Sending o’er distant towns their perfumes bland,
Loading with sweet aroma sunless hours.
Who knows what tremulous, dusky hands set free,
Deck quaintly with gay flowers the graves unknown?
What wealth of bloom is shed exuberantly,
On the far grave in Illinois alone,
Where the last hero, sleeping peacefully,
Beyond detraction and mistrust, doth lie,
By the glad winds of prairies overblown?
With hymns and prayer be this day sanctified,
And consecrate to heroes’ memories;
Not with wild, violent grief for those who died,
O wives and mothers, but with patience wise,
Calm resignation, and a thankful pride,
That they have left their land a fame so wide,
So rich a page of thrilling histories.
Emma Lazarus was influenced by her family history. They had been part of the educated and financially successful upper levels of New York society for generations. They still faced discrimination as Jews, it was just more subtle. She was well aware of it, but also knew that newly arrived Jewish families were met with far more outright bigotry.
Her poem on the arrival of Columbus in the “New World” is a fable of the Jewish people leaving behind their oppression in Europe, and coming to a “virgin world” where they will be free from the hatred of the Old World.
Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,
Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,
The children of the prophets of the Lord,
Prince, priest, and people, spurned by zealot hate.
Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,
The West refused them, and the East abhorred.
No anchorage the known world could afford,
Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.
Then smiling, thou unveil’dst, O two-faced year,
A virgin world where doors of sunset part,
Saying, “Ho, all who weary, enter here!
There falls each ancient barrier that the art
Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear
Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart!”
Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, thousands of destitute Ashkenazi Jews fled from the anti-Semitic violence of the Russian pogroms. Lazarus became an advocate for the refugees, volunteering at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. She was appalled by their miserable living conditions, and helped to establish the Hebrew Technical Institute. She embraced the economic ideas of political economist Henry George, corresponded with Ralph Waldo Emerson about poetry, but also about Transcendentalism, and was sympathetic to William Morris, one of the leaders of the socialistic Arts and Crafts movement in Britain, whom she met on a trip to Europe.
Russian Jews were not the only immigrants arriving in America. Between 1880 and 1920, the “Great Wave of Immigration” brought over 23 million people to the United States.
Emma Lazarus imagines, like this upbeat letter from a Russian refugee,
that the refugees’ nobility of toil and study of the Torah will be uninterrupted by any prejudice from their new Texas neighbors.
“Since that day till now our life is one unbroken paradise. We live a true brotherly life. Every evening after supper we take a seat under the mighty oak and sing our songs.”—Extract from a letter of a Russian refugee in Texas.
Twilight is here, soft breezes bow the grass,
Day’s sounds of various toil break slowly off.
The yoke-freed oxen low, the patient ass
Dips his dry nostril in the cool, deep trough.
Up from the prairie the tanned herdsmen pass
With frothy pails, guiding with voices rough
Their udder-lightened kine. Fresh smells of earth,
The rich, black furrows of the glebe send forth.
After the Southern day of heavy toil,
How good to lie, with limbs relaxed, brows bare
To evening’s fan, and watch the smoke-wreaths coil
Up from one’s pipe-stem through the rayless air.
So deem these unused tillers of the soil,
Who stretched beneath the shadowing oak tree, stare
Peacefully on the star-unfolding skies,
And name their life unbroken paradise.
The hounded stag that has escaped the pack,
And pants at ease within a thick-leaved dell;
The unimprisoned bird that finds the track
Through sun-bathed space, to where his fellows dwell;
The martyr, granted respite from the rack,
The death-doomed victim pardoned from his cell,—
Such only know the joy these exiles gain,—
Life’s sharpest rapture is surcease of pain.
Strange faces theirs, wherethrough the Orient sun
Gleams from the eyes and glows athwart the skin.
Grave lines of studious thought and purpose run
From curl-crowned forehead to dark-bearded chin.
And over all the seal is stamped thereon
Of anguish branded by a world of sin,
In fire and blood through ages on their name,
Their seal of glory and the Gentiles’ shame.
Freedom to love the law that Moses brought,
To sing the songs of David, and to think
The thoughts Gabirol to Spinoza taught,
Freedom to dig the common earth, to drink
The universal air—for this they sought
Refuge o’er wave and continent, to link
Egypt with Texas in their mystic chain,
And truth’s perpetual lamp forbid to wane.
Hark! through the quiet evening air, their song
Floats forth with wild sweet rhythm and glad refrain.
They sing the conquest of the spirit strong,
The soul that wrests the victory from pain;
The noble joys of manhood that belong
To comrades and to brothers. In their strain
Rustle of palms and Eastern streams one hears,
And the broad prairie melts in mist of tears.
The Hebrew prophet Ezekiel revealed prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem, the restoration of the land of Israel, and the building of a Third Temple in Jerusalem. Emma Lazarus, one of the early champions of a Jewish homeland, uses the story of Ezekiel to call for this homeland.
The New Ezekiel
What, can these dead bones live, whose sap is dried
By twenty scorching centuries of wrong?
Is this the House of Israel, whose pride
Is as a tale that’s told, an ancient song?
Are these ignoble relics all that live
Of psalmist, priest, and prophet? Can the breath
Of very heaven bid these bones revive,
Open the graves and clothe the ribs of death?
Yea, Prophesy, the Lord hath said. Again
Say to the wind, Come forth and breathe afresh,
Even that they may live upon these slain,
And bone to bone shall leap, and flesh to flesh.
The Spirit is not dead, proclaim the word,
Where lay dead bones, a host of armed men stand!
I ope your graves, my people, saith the Lord,
And I shall place you living in your land.
The statue of “Liberty Enlightening the World” was designed by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, collaborating with engineer Alexandre Eiffel. It was a gift of friendship from the people of France to the United States. Originally, it was intended to be a symbol of the end of slavery and America’s reuniting after the Civil War. From the start, it was agreed that the U.S. would pay for and build the huge pedestal needed for the statue.
Fundraising was slow in France for the statue, but it was even slower in America for its essential but less inspiring base. Emma Lazarus wrote The New Colossus in 1883 for the art and literary auction in New York to raise more funds for the project. That same year, the Chinese Exclusion Act became the first federal law that limited immigration from a particular group.
Both the New York Times and Joseph Pulitzer printed her poem, and Pulitzer also used the editorial pages of The World to criticize both the rich who hadn’t made contributions, and the middle class who expected the wealthy to provide all the needed donations. Architect Richard Morris Hunt donated his fee for designing the granite pedestal to help get it funded. Enough money was raised by August, 1885, and the pedestal was finished in April, 1886. The statue was completed in France during the summer of 1884, and arrived in 350 individual pieces packed in 214 crates at New York Harbor in June 1885. Its reassembly took four months. “Liberty Enlightening the World” was dedicated on October 28, 1886. The New Colossus was forgotten by the time of the dedication.
Emma Lazarus died the next year, on November 19, 1887. In 1901, her friend Georgina Schuyler found a copy of the poem, and began campaigning for Lazarus and her poem to be memorialized. In 1903 she succeeded, and a plaque bearing the words of the poem was put on the inner wall of the pedestal it helped raise the money to build.
Emma Lazarus lived a privileged life, yet was never completely accepted into the class of society she inhabited. She had great sympathy for the plight of the poor and oppressed, but tended to romanticize their lives in her poems. Many of her poems are fables, the “good parts” version of the story.
A good fable should inspire us to do better, to pursue the ideals it reflects, instead of accepting the faults of our society as “just the way things are.” The poem that Emma Lazarus wrote to raise money for the foundation of the statue which she called ‘Mother of Exiles’ has continued to inspire generations of people around the world with hope, and reminds many Americans of the past struggles of their own families.
I think the moral of her fables is: The kind people should win.
- Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems, edited by John Hollander – American Poets Project, Library of America – 2005
- Drawing of Emma Lazarus
- Statue of Liberty – Untapped Cities by Michelle Young
- Spring in an old graveyard
- Auto da fe in Lisbon
- Plowing with Oxen
- The Restored Israel
- Liberty Enlightening the World
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud