Friday, October 28, 2011

The World's Most Famous Sonnet


When the world's most famous sonnet was written in 1883 it barely caused a ripple. When it's author died in 1887 it wasn't even mentioned in her obituary. Today, most everyone can recite at least a line.

Emma Lazarus's New Colossus did not create much of a stir until it was affixed inside the base of the Statue of Liberty in 1903.


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!"

The poem has proven to be so powerful over the years that it has even changed the meaning and purpose of the Statue of Liberty itself. As a gift from the government of France, the Statue dedicated 125 years ago today, was meant to be a monument for international republicanism. Today, because of Lazarus's sonnet it is known as a beacon to immigrants and a welcoming to America. 

Born in New York City in 1849 Emma would become known posthumously as the Poet of Exiles. In 1866, when Emma was seventeen, her father privately published her first book, Poems and Translations Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Seventeen. She died November 19, 1887 at the age of 38.