Of Hope and Breath
“The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus, is a time-honored poem, and a personal favorite of mine, for both content and context. The poem follows the Petrarchan sonnet format, a common poetic form originating from Renaissance poets who were inspired by the works of Petrarch himself.
Beginning with an appropriate historical allusion (namely, to the Colossus of Rhodes), Lazarus goes on to describe the poem’s true subject, the Statue of Liberty, in awed terms, invoking the image of a mother goddess, warding away darkness literal (given that the Statue’s torch was, at the time of writing, electrically wired–a fascinating curiosity in the 1880s), and metaphorical, given that the spectre of anti-Semitism was growing, and Lazarus was of Sephardic heritage and a noted advocate for the Jewish refugees fleeing Imperial Russia’s pogroms.
All these images are connected by a single ideological thread–hope. From the imagery of light pushing away dark, to the references to real-world political events to which the statue bore witness, the idea that something better is waiting, that good can triumph, stands as a persistent undertone throughout Lazarus’s sonnet. This message– hope in the face of despair, is what truly resonates with me, and what, I think, truly resonates with all who read and understand it.
Hope is a common topic these days: in political rhetoric, in digital discourse, written on signs and shouted by defiant voices in countless cities. Hope is a thread binding dozens, if not hundreds, of disparate movements and initiatives in a time of turmoil and strife across the world, giving us all a common purpose–to resist the surging tides of hate and oppression rearing their ugly heads in America, and the world at large. And that hope is what I love about this piece of art–immortally embodied in the words, “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We all deserve to take a moment to draw free breath, and then raise a hopeful cry for a better tomorrow.
Tain Leonard-Peck is a writer, painter, actor, model, composer, and a competitive sailor, skier, and fencer.
Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) wrote “The New Colossus” in 1883 to raise money for construction of the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. The poem was cast in bronze and mounted to the statue in 1903. The success of the project earned Lazarus the title of being one of the first successful Jewish American authors.