Tag Archives: Emma Lazarus

Nancy Levinson



Liberty Enlightening the World



Think her not a poor refugee   

this modest, proper, gloved woman

of Jewish faith born on American soil. 

And if she wore fame at all,

it hung brief in her shortened life.

Her rise to glory followed only in time

when her poetic words were inscribed

on the Statue of Liberty welcoming

the “wretched refuse” to the shores

of freedom’s land a century and half ago.



Hers was a privileged life in New York City,   

dressed in upper-class, tutored at home

in classics, piano, and the arts. 

Like well-heeled women of the day,

the cultivated Emma dwelt sheltered from the world. 

Yet how she longed to accomplish

something meaningful, something of importance!

 Who am I? she wondered.  What purpose is mine?



One day a rabbi brought her to visit

Castle Garden on Ward’s Island, and there

on the tiny isle in New York harbor

where shiploads of weary, bewildered

European immigrants arrived, Emma witnessed   

deep shades of darkness, such as she had never seen

or knew existed.  Culture shock it was later called. 

Amongst the impoverished and the throngs

of her ‘co-religionists’  who’d escaped   

the Russian Czar’s marauding Cossack soldiers,

murdering Jews young and old,

burning their synagogues and villages—

she was profoundly moved.  In short time, too,

she learned how iniquities were spun

of intolerance and hate.



No further need to wistfully ponder

her purpose. Emma found her voice.

She took up her pen, and with growing power

began writing on the human condition – verse,

essays and letters pleading for the refugee cause.

And with ferocity and depth she struck back

at mounting anti-Semitism.



Slowly a French ship made its way

across the Atlantic, carrying the gargantuan sections

of the statue – four-hundred and fifty tons in all –

designed and built by sculptor Auguste Bartholdi

which he’d called  liberty enlightening the world.

Assembling it was long delayed for lack of funds

needed to build a large, supporting pedestal—

a promise of America in accepting the gift from France.


What last efforts might then be made

to raise the coffers? Ah, a few thinking minds

prevailed.  A book!  A book of new poems

by writers of the day.  Auction to the highest bidder.

How pleased was Emma at the invitation

to make a contribution!  With purpose and devotion

she set to penning a poem:  The New Colossus,

ending with the eloquent and oft-recited verse:           


      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!”



Yet by serendipity only fifteen years past

the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty [1886]

was her sonnet inscribed on the pedestal.

A New York patron of the arts chanced

upon the small book in a dusty antique shop,

and upon reading The New Colossus

arranged for its inscription.

But Emma lived not to know of her honor.

She had died of lymphoma, aged thirty-eight.

With her own beacon she welcomed

the desolate many to America,

to breathe her nation’s air of freedom.

Once adorned in fashion, then swathed in shroud,

the poetic voice of Emma Lazarus

rang out for all humanity.


Nancy Levinson is the author of MOMENTS OF DAWN: A Poetic Narrative of Love & Family, Affliction & Affirmation, as well as numerous poems and stories that have appeared in publications including Poetica, Confrontation, Survivor’s ReviewDrunk Monkeys, Foliate Oak, and Rat’s Ass ReviewThree essays have appeared in anthologies, one of which garnered a Pushcart nomination.  Nancy lives in Los Angeles.
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