A descendant of Sephardic Jews who immigrated to the United States from Portugal around the time of the American Revolution, Emma Lazarus was born in New York City on July 22, 1849. Before Lazarus, the only Jewish poets published in the United States were humor and hymnal writers. Her book Songs of a Semite was the first collection of poetry to explore Jewish-American identity while struggling with the problems of modern poetics.
Her family was wealthy, and Lazarus was educated at home, acquiring a knowledge of Greek and Latin classics, as well as the modern literature of Germany, Italy, and France. Lazarus developed an affinity for verse at an early age. As a teenager, she began translating the poems of Victor Hugo, Heinrich Heine, Alexandre Dumas, and Friedrich Schiller.
Lazarus began publishing poems in the 1860s and 1870s, including translations of German poems. In 1866, her father arranged for the poems and translations she wrote between the ages of fourteen and sixteen to be privately printed, and the following year a commercially published volume titled Poems and Translations followed. The work attracted the attention of poets and critics, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who became her friend and mentor.
Lazarus published another volume of poetry, Admetus and Other Poems (1871); a novel, Alide: An Episode in Goethe's Life (1874); and a verse drama, The Spagnoletto (1876), before her interests in Jewish identity and culture were reflected in her work. After reading George Eliot's 1876 novel Daniel Deronda, which explores Jewish ancestory in Victorian society, Lazarus began to translate medieval Hebrew poetry from the German. News of the Russian pogroms fueled her interest. In 1881, she witnessed firsthand the tumultuous arrival of exiled refugees into the United States. The following year, she published a polemic in The Century, as well as another collection of verse, Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death and Other Poems.
Following the publication of Songs of a Semite, Lazarus wrote several prose pieces concerned with the historical and political interests of the Jewish people, and travelled to France and England, where she met and befriended literary figures, such as Robert Browning and William Morris.
After returning from Europe, Lazarus was asked for an original poem to be auctioned off as a fundraiser for the building of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Though she initially declined, Lazarus later used the opportunity to express the plight of refugee immigrants, who she cared greatly about. Her resulting sonnet, "The New Colossus", includes the iconic lines "Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," and is inscribed on a plaque on the pedestal of the monument.
In 1884, Lazarus fell ill, most likely from Hodgkin's lymphoma. After her father's death the following year, she travelled again, hoping an encounter with a new country would help her regain some of her strength. She visited Italy for the first time, followed by England and France, but soon returned to the United States when her illness worsened. She died a few months later on November 17, 1887.
In the years following her death, Lazarus fell into relative obscurity. A 1926 edition of her complete collected poems was kept out of the public eye by her sister, who owned the rights to the work, but whose religious and political beliefs were in opposition to the Judaic concerns raised by Lazarus in her poetry.