Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, May 22, 2005

When Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) was asked to compose a poem for a proposed immense statue representing "Liberty Enlightening the World," by the French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, she at first rejected the commission, apparently reluctant to compose on assignment. So writes John Hollander in his introduction to the new Library of America volume Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems . She may also have felt the limitations of writing a poem to be used as a means of attracting donors to the project.

As Hollander points out, it is extremely good. If you read attentively beyond the familiar phrases, and beyond the literary conventions of Lazarus's historical moment, the freshness of imagination in "The New Colossus" is striking:

The New Colossus

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,

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