On this day in 1849 was the birth of Emma Lazarus, a poet best known for her sonnet, which is inscribed on a bronze plaque on the pedestal of the Status of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
She was born into a Sephardic-Ashkenazi Jewish family, the fourth of seven children. Her father’s side of the family were recent immigrants from Germany and her mother’s side was originally from Portugal but had been in New York since before the American Revolution. In fact, her maternal great-great grandmother was also a poet; Grace Seizas Nathan. Emma studied avidly from a young age, not just British and American literature but also several languages including Italian, French, and German.
Emma was known both for her own writings, and her adaptations of German poems, especially those of Heinrich Heine and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Of course, she also wrote many poems of her own, as well as other works, including a novel and two plays. Her first play was The Spagnoletto, a tragic verse drama, and her second was The Dance to Death, which was a dramatic adaptation of a German short story about the Jews who were burned in Nordhausen during the Black Death.
After the Russian pograms in the 1880s, she began to write articles on the emigration of Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the violence, as well as a book called Songs of the Semite. She also became an outspoken advocate for Jewish refugees, and helped establish the Hebrew Technical Institute, which was a school that provided vocational training to Jewish immigrants who wanted to become self-sufficient. One of her other best-known poems is a poem called “Epochs“; which is actually a “cycle poem” in sixteen parts. She also traveled Europe twice in her life time, and it was after one of those trips that she fell ill and returned home, dying two months later in November of 1887, at the age of only 38.
Her well-known poem “The New Colossus”, was written for an action to raise funds for the Statue of Liberty pedestal, and eventually inscribed upon it in 1903, 16 years after her death. It seems even more fitting today to include this 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!”