Emma Lazarus wrote the sonnet “The New Colossus” on Nov. 2, 1883 as part of a fundraising effort for the construction of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal.
Lazarus was born on July 22, 1849, into a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family (Sephardic Jews descend from people who were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition in the 15th century). While her Jewish heritage played a minor role in her early work, it eventually became a major part of her artistic voice, and in her later career, she became a strong advocate against ethnic prejudice and anti-Semitism in Russia.
She was a contemporary of poets like James Russell Lowell and Ralph Waldo Emerson; Emerson, in particular, was something of a mentor to Lazarus, and she dedicated one of her books of poetry to him.
In the early 1880s, Lazarus had begun helping Eastern European Jewish immigrants, teaching them English and acting as their advocate. She helped found the Hebrew Technical Institute, a New York institution that provided vocational training to Jewish immigrants.
Around this time, a friend asked her to contribute a poem to an auction meant to fund the construction of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. The Statue of Liberty was not an especially popular project in parts of the United States; France had paid for the statue’s construction, but the U.S. had to purchase its base. Outside of New York, many deemed it an unnecessary expense, and it was not seen as a monument to American immigration at that point in history.
“At first, Emma said, ‘I don't write on command,’” Annie Polland, executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, told NPR. “And then her friend [19th-century American author] Constance Cary Harrison said, ‘No, but, you know, Emma, think of these refugees you are helping. Think of how they'll see the statue in the harbor.’ And according to Constance Cary Harrison, Emma's eyes lit up, and she came back in two days or three days with the poem, ‘The New Colossus.’”
The poem would become Lazarus' most enduring work, but she did not live to see it become famous. She died in 1887 at the age of 38 from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Her sister Josephine published two volumes of her poetry, The Poems of Emma Lazarus, in 1888. In 1903, “The New Colossus" was inscribed on a bronze plaque on the monument’s pedestal.
Here’s the poem in its entirety:
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!"