Sunday, April 18, 2010

Imprisoned Lightning

The New Colossus
by 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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

A picture of the manuscript of the poem in Lazarus's own hand. The twin cities are New York and Brooklyn, which at the turn of the twentieth century were distinct. The "brazen giant of Greek fame" is obviously the Colossus of Rhodes. That statue, which was of Helios the Sun-god, also bore a lamp, and it was also associated with liberty, since ancient tradition has the dedication of the Colossus read:

To you, O Sun, the people of Dorian Rhodes set up this bronze statue reaching to Olympus, when they had pacified the waves of war and crowned their city with the spoils taken from the enemy. Not only over the seas but also on land did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom and independence. For to the descendants of Herakles belongs dominion over sea and land.

It was often pictured (fancifully) as striding the mouth of the harbor.

Lazarus's poem is best known, of course, through its association with the Statue of Liberty; the plaque for the poem at the Statue of Liberty drops the comma in "Keep, ancient land"; thus one often sees the poem quoted without it.

I was reminded by Arsen's quoting of it that I hadn't quoted it here myself, despite liking the poem. And it is always worthwhile to remember that the name of Liberty is Mother of Exiles, and her torch, which gives freedom to the wretched and huddled masses, stands opposed in its very idea to that of the Sun-god, whose light of liberty is the light of dominion and conquest.

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