Emma Lazarus

The poetry of Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), best known for the verse inscribed on the Statue of Liberty pedestal

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Lazarus' Judaism was multifaceted, equal parts philosophy, music, and jurisprudence. It was also, however, a story of homelessness and hatred: "Once more the clarion cock has crowed,/Once more the sword of Christ is drawn./A million burning rooftrees light/The world-wide path of Israel’s flight./Where is the Hebrew’s fatherland?" The Jews were downtrodden, weary, their grandeur sapped by anti-Semitism and exile, and yet there was still an aura to the Jew that persisted, no matter the horrors of the past. “Oh deem not dead that martial fire,/Say not the mystic flame is spent!/With Moses’ law and David’s lyre,/Your ancient strength remains unbent./Let but an Ezra rise anew,/To lift the Banner of the Jew!”

Lazarus’ last work, By the Waters of Babylon, published posthumously in 1888, continued in the vein of Songs of a Semite, beginning with “The Exodus (August 3, 1492),” which depicted the forced exodus of Spanish Jewry in the same year as Christopher Columbus had his famous "exodus."

"Daylong I brooded upon the passion of Israel,” begins “The Test,” and "The Prophet" continues with a lovingly compiled array of Jewish luminaries. "1. Moses ben Maimon lifting his perpetual lamp over the path of the perplexed;/ 2. Hallevi, the honey-tongued poet, wakening amid the silent ruins of Zion the sleeping lyre of David;/ 3. Moses, the wise son of Mendel, who made the Ghetto illustrious."

statue of libertyFor all of Lazarus’ poetic work, the one she is best known for is most famous for appearing not on a page, but on a statue. Etched into the side of the Statue of Liberty are the verses that pay passionate tribute to the immigrant ideal that had spurred the United States. “The New Colossus,” written for the Statue of Liberty as part of a fundraising effort for its pedestal, imagined a larger-than-life woman, "Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,” standing guard over the entrance to the United States, "whose flame/Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name/Mother of Exiles." Lazarus was purposefully vague, but “The New Colossus” was clearly inspired by the Jewish immigrants she had paid lavish tribute to in her poetry.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.