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Esther Schor annotates Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”

November 6, 2011

lazarusEsther Schor (Princeton) has prepared an (interactive) annotated version of Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” – certainly one of the most celebrated American poems (you almost certainly know its line “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be breath free….”)  Check it out.

Schor previously wrote a biography of Lazarus.  You can listen to an NPR interview with Schor here (summary and three poems by Lazarus here).  Here is a portion of that interview:

JACKI LYDEN (host): Emma Lazarus wrote this sonnet, The New Colossus, in 1883. While it was given an honored place at the base of the Statue of Liberty and became a part of the American credo, Ms. Lazarus, the poet, became relatively obscure.

That’s a pity. Not only because she was an iconoclast and one of the most original minds of her day, but because Emma Lazarus believed in the strength of America as a free-thinking country.

Bringing her back into our view is Esther Schor. A poet and professor of English at Princeton University, Ms. Schor has just published a biography called simply Emma Lazarus, and joins me now. Thanks very much for being here.

Professor ESTHER SCHOR (Princeton University): Thank you. It’s a pleasure, Jacki.

LYDEN: You know, you have a really nice line getting into this book. You’re talking about The Diary of Anne Frank and your own parents had given you a book and they inscribed it, Here’s a girl I want you to know. And you begin by telling us here’s a woman I want you to know. Why? Why do you want us to know her?

Prof. SCHOR: Well, I’m fortunate to have gotten to know her myself. When I began the project, I really knew almost nothing about her. In fact I had some of the misconceptions that people have when I talked to them about Emma Lazarus, that she was an immigrant, that she was a 20th century poet.

In fact she was a fourth, if not fifth, generation American Jew of Sephardic descent who spent almost all of her life in New York City. She was born in 1849 and died in 1887, which is to say she had a very short life. In fact I thought of calling this book Emma Lazarus: Half a Life.

LYDEN: At the end of her life, in this brief life – she’s 38 years old when she died.

Prof. SCHOR: Of Hodgkin’s Disease.

LYDEN: Of Hodgkin’s Disease. What was her stature then?

Prof. SCHOR: She was very well-known. She was eminent on two continents. She was well-known in the Jewish press, but of course also in the mainstream American press. She was an essayist for The Century magazine and Scribner’s, and all you have to do is look at the obituaries to see how high her stature was.

LYDEN: You have a wonderful picture that I think anybody, any mother, any daughter, any person might love, of this little girl growing up in a gilded age – literally, it was called the Gilded Age at that time…

Prof. SCHOR: Yeah.

LYDEN: …so much wealth flowing into the country and into New York – and she’s learning poetry. She’s learning what languages and how to write and which philosophers is she studying, just kind of on her own volition?

Prof. SCHOR: Well, I don’t have any sign that she ever attended a day of school in her life, and she was an intellectual. She was very erudite. She spoke several languages. But she was schooled in her father’s library like so many illustrious women that we know of.

LYDEN: One of the things that really struck me was how much paternal support she had for her great intellectual powers, that he bound her poems and distributed them to friends when she was still a teen.

Prof. SCHOR: Yes, that’s an understatement. He took paternal pride to Olympian heights. And so while we have very little evidence about her childhood, about the details of her childhood, we know for a fact that her father published her work and that it was a volume of over 200 pages, when she was a little over 16 years old. Amazing.

LYDEN: And she – she was bold girl, and she had a lot of self-confidence. She wrote to Emerson and offered him her poems, right?

Prof. SCHOR: She gave him her book when she was 18 and he was 65. She met him through a friend of her father’s. She had many different kinds of friends, from bluebloods to mountain men to Emerson to Hawthorne’s daughter to Henry and Williams James. And she – she was uninhibited and she knew she had a gift. She was translating from French and Italian in her, you know, early teens. She was also writing poems about the Civil War as a young girl.

Pretty close to the end of the war she wrote and astonishing sequence of poems written from the point of view of John Wilkes Booth, after – soon after the assassination. I’ve never seen anything like these poems. One is spoken by Booth’s mother, lamenting the fact that there’s no grave for him.

She often took a very unpredictable point of view. And later she would write a remarkable poem called Progress and Poverty, which imagines the underworld of the laborers who are supporting precisely the luxuries that she has been enjoying all her life. Would you like me to read that one?

LYDEN: Please.

Prof. SCHOR: This poem was published in The New York Times and the title is – the title, “Henry George’s Book, Progress and Poverty.”

Prof. SCHOR: (Reading) Oh splendid age when science lights her lamp. At the brief lightning’s momentary flame fixing it steadfast as a star. Man’s name upon the very brown of heaven to stamp. Launched on a ship whose iron quires mock storm and wave. Humanity sails free gaily upon a vast untraveled sea or passless wastes to ports undreamed she rides. Richer than Cleopatra’s barge of gold this vessel manned by demigods with trade of priceless marvels. But where yawns the hold in that deep reeking hell? What slaves be they who feed the ravenous monster pant and sweat nor know if overhead rain night or day?

LYDEN: Now that poem was written in 1881.

Prof. SCHOR: Right.

LYDEN: And the same year she becomes aware in detail of horrifying pogroms against the Jews of Russia. What impact did that have on her thinking, on her consciousness, on her sense of being Jewish, and her poetry?

Prof. SCHOR: She was reading all along with everyone else and it was a series of articles in The New York Times that I think was her first real open eye to this terrible turn of events. It made her feel that it was time to speak out. And with refugees fleeing by the thousands into New York Harbor, she was called on by various associates of hers in the Jewish world to write about this, to visit them, and she did. She became absolutely convinced that this was a turning point in her life, that to embrace their cause was her calling. And she did it in a number of ways. She did it in what we would now call activism and social work. Of course those two terms were not used in 1882. She taught them English. She worked in the employment office. She visited them. In fact, she saw a holding pen and it disgusted her, and she called out, very effectively I would add, for change.

LYDEN: Was she comfortable early on with being Jewish? I mean did her place in literature become more Jewish as she was awakened to oppression and persecution? And how did that square with her, you know, with her own family upbringing?

Prof. SCHOR: She was a Jew and an American. And she was firmly convinced that this was a perfectly valid identity. I mean we have to see that there was something very progressive and forward-looking about this. She didn’t leave her Judaism at home when she went into the public eye.

LYDEN: Tell us about her poem “The New Colossus” and this exciting new development in New York City, the notion of a new statue of liberty.

Prof. SCHOR: Well, it should have been more exciting, and the fact is that it didn’t excite that many people. The Americans had undertaken to contribute the pedestal and the statue was to be a gift of the French. And they had the darndest time trying to raise money for it. So there was an attempt to raise money with an exhibition in December of 1883, and someone turned to Emma Lazarus knowing of her involvement in the refugee crisis for a poem about the statue to be auctioned. They were going to simply raise money with her poem. And she at first demurred. “This isn’t what I do. I don’t write on command.” And then she did it.

And what’s amazing about the poem is that it generalizes the sense of commitment that she had to the refugee Jews into an American mission. And she later kept thinking about this and she worked out the connection to her credit and with her great intellect. And her feeling was that when you have the benefits of freedom, you had more than rights; you also had duties. And on the model of a Jewish duty to repair the world, she conceived of a mission for America, and that is explicit in the poem The New Colossus.

LYDEN: Esther Schor is a poet and professor of English at Princeton University and she’s just written a new book called Emma Lazarus. Thanks again, Esther Schor.

Prof. SCHOR: Thank you.

LYDEN: Emma Lazarus, by the way, never got to see her poem on the statue of liberty. It was not placed on the pedestal until 1903, after her death. 

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2011 6:58 am

    Thanks for this post. Esther Schor, in her biography of Emma Lazarus, recalls how early the poet and translator made her debut: When just 17 years old, her “Poems and Translations, Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Sixteen ran to more than two hundred pages, comprising nearly thirty ‘Original Pieces,’ two hulking romances each in excess of a thousand lines, and translations of forty-five short lyrics by Heine, Schiller, Dumas, and Hugo.”

    She continued later in her short life to translate and to emulate Heine. One of Lazarus’ translations of Heine’s poem “Donna Clara” (from German) is followed by a couple of inspired original “imitations” of the Heine lyrics (Lazarus’s own lyrics); the second one, “Fra Pedro.” It ends with these stanzas:

    Thus he spoke and ceased. The Abbot
    Lent him an impatient hearing,
    Then outbroke with angry accent,
    “We have borne three years, thou sayest?

    “‘T’is enough; my vow is sacred.
    These shall perish with their brethren.
    Hark ye! In my veins’ pure current
    Were a single drop found Jewish,

    “I would shrink not from outpouring
    All my life blood, but to purge it.
    Shall I gentler prove to others?
    Mercy would be sacrilegious.

    “Ne’er again at thy soul’s peril,
    Speak to me of Jewish beauty,
    Jewish skill, or Jewish virtue.
    I have said. Do thou remember.”

    Down behind the purple hillside
    Dropped the sun; above the garden
    Rang the Angelus’ clear cadence
    Summoning the monks to vespers.

    The contradictions in Fra Pedro that come to light in Lazarus’ lines are mirrored even more sharply in her poem “The Crowing of the Red Cock.” It’s an indictment of anti-Semitic Christians and Christianity and a reclamation of their Jesus as Jewish. That poem ends this way:

    When the long roll of Christian guilt
    Against his sires and kin is known,
    The flood of tears, the life-blood spilt
    The agony of ages shown,
    What oceans can the stain remove,
    From Christian law and Christian love?

    Nay, close the book; not now, not here,
    The hideous tale of sin narrate,
    Reechoing in the martyr’s ear,
    Even he might nurse revengeful hate,
    Even he might turn in wrath sublime,
    With blood for blood and crime for crime.

    Coward? Not he, who faces death,
    Who singly against worlds has fought,
    For what? A name he may not breathe,
    For liberty of prayer and thought.
    The angry sword he will not whet,
    His nobler task is—to forget.

    What’s strking is the importance of memory and of forgetfulness. Schor writes some about both of these poems, and thankfully much more helps us to remember what Lazarus helps us all to remember and, of course, helps us to remember the short and influential life of Emma Lazarus.

  2. November 6, 2011 1:49 pm

    Beautiful comment, Kurk.

    It is also a memorial of a time when poetry was a mass form of entertainment. When we think of poems such as “The New Colossus”; (or Poe’s “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee”; or Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “Hiawatha”; or Carroll’s “Hunting of the Snark” and Alice poetry and poetry parodies (including “Jabberwocky”); or Coleridge “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan”) we can remember that poetry used to be a form of mass popular entertainment, and did not always have the reputation of being difficult or only a hipster activity. Even if poetry has moved away from being a mass pop art today, these poems still play a large role in our collective memory.

    And there is a good reason for that: despite its familiarity, Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” still is a poem that can move us; and it has become even richer through its later associations, as Schor’s annotations demonstrate.

  3. November 12, 2011 8:25 pm

    Esther Schor honored us with a visit to this blog, and left a brief comment here.

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