“The New Colossus” and hope for an open society

On the “New Colossus”

Emanuel Pastreich

January 28, 2017

Fred Lang was so kind as to share Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” this evening with me. I had been thinking about the decisions of the so-called “Trump Administration” to build walls around the United States and to start to block the immigration of people to the United States from Muslim nations. Fred picked exactly the right poem to give a glitter of hope.

This poem is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty and has embodied a noble part of the American tradition for the last 150 years. Of course the racist and xenophobic tradition has also a long history in the United States, and the two strands of American culture have alternated since the Civil War.

One of the reasons that the Trump people are able to run over their opposition is that so many of the words that made the best of the United States have been detached from institutions and people. The words on the Statue of Liberty, or on the Capitol Building, have been reduced to mere words. Few today have fought or sacrificed for the constitution, the Statue of Liberty or other higher values for so long time. There are of course people suffering for the cause of freedom today, but they are almost invisible in the eyes of most people. The recent national prison strike was completely ignored by almost everyone I know in the United States.

Emma Lazarus was an American poet of German Jewish origins who took a deep interest in the sufferings of Jews in Eastern Europe. The title of her poem, “The New Colossus” suggests the contradictions of the United States. On the one hand, there was a confidence that something new and more humane could be achieved here. But of course “colossus” also suggests the pomp and arrogance of Rome, the imperial disease.

The New Colossus

 EMMA LAZARUS

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!”

I cannot help thinking of Percy B. Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” about imperial arrogance. In any case, today it seems as if Emma Lazarus’ poem is now up for grab—an opportunity for any one, any group, or any country who is ready to stand up for the huddled masses and offer hope to our torn world.

Emma Lazarus

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