Poem of The Month – The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus

This month’s poem is inspired by both a trip during August to Northern Ireland, my journey of DNA discovery, and the depressing news cycle we watched when we (rarely) turned on the TV to catch the news while taking in the magnificent Causeway coast.

I recently had my DNA ancestry traced on 23andMe and discovered that genetically I am 98.5% Irish; the surprise for me was that it was the counties in the south, not the north of Ireland, that comprised my biggest ancestor hits. Since then I’ve been contacted  by dozens of DNA relatives, the vast majority of whom are from Canada and the United States.

This also isn’t surprising as 10% of the US population claims Irish heritage –  that’s more than 30 million people, compared with the combined population of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland  of just 6.5 million. Up to a million people emigrated from Ireland, mainly to the New World during the 1845-1849 Great Famine (an Gorta Mór in Irish); so many people left Ireland never to return that the country still hasn’t fully recovered from the depopulation.

All of this is relevant to this month’s poem because in August, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (an official with an Italian surname) stated his opinion that Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, which is transcribed on the base of the statue of Liberty, refers only to Europeans.

Cuccinelli gave his views a day after the Trump administration announced it would seek to deny green cards to migrants who seek Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance. It’s not to hard to read this as meaning the words etched on the base of the statue of Liberty apply only to white people,  with “European” likely being code to appeal to the more militant of Trump’s base.

Cuccinelli either forgot or never learned his history; just like the Irish immigrants to the US during the 19th century, many considered Italians to be non-white, unreliable, shiftless, dirty, disease ridden (and maybe most importantly, of the “wrong” religion), just like most of the Irish

So this month’s poem is that same poem (actually a sonnet) written by Emma Lazarus in 1838 to raise funds for the construction of a plinth for the Statue of Liberty.  Sixty years later, her poem was cast onto a bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal’s lower level. Nearly two hundred years after it was written, Emma Lazarus’s poem remains depressingly relevant, and a warning not to fall back into unenlightened, debunked attitudes. Necessary conversations about immigration control should not, in the twenty-first century, be harking back to the ignorance of  the 1800’s.

The New Colossus

By Emma Lazarus

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!”


Leave a Reply