About this poet

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.

In Exile

Emma Lazarus, 1849 - 1887
"Since that day till now our life is one unbroken paradise. We live a true brotherly life. Every evening after supper we take a seat under the mighty oak and sing our songs." —Extract from a letter of a Russian refugee in Texas.

Twilight is here, soft breezes bow the grass,
      Day's sounds of various toil break slowly off.
The yoke-freed oxen low, the patient ass
      Dips his dry nostril in the cool, deep trough.
Up from the prairie the tanned herdsmen pass
      With frothy pails, guiding with voices rough
Their udder-lightened kine. Fresh smells of earth,
The rich, black furrows of the glebe send forth.

After the Southern day of heavy toil,
      How good to lie, with limbs relaxed, brows bare
To evening's fan, and watch the smoke-wreaths coil
      Up from one's pipe-stem through the rayless air.
So deem these unused tillers of the soil,
      Who stretched beneath the shadowing oak tree, stare
Peacefully on the star-unfolding skies,
And name their life unbroken paradise.

The hounded stag that has escaped the pack,
      And pants at ease within a thick-leaved dell;
The unimprisoned bird that finds the track
      Through sun-bathed space, to where his fellows dwell;
The martyr, granted respite from the rack,
      The death-doomed victim pardoned from his cell,—
Such only know the joy these exiles gain,—
Life's sharpest rapture is surcease of pain.

Strange faces theirs, wherethrough the Orient sun
      Gleams from the eyes and glows athwart the skin.
Grave lines of studious thought and purpose run
      From curl-crowned forehead to dark-bearded chin.
And over all the seal is stamped thereon
      Of anguish branded by a world of sin,
In fire and blood through ages on their name,
Their seal of glory and the Gentiles' shame.

Freedom to love the law that Moses brought,
      To sing the songs of David, and to think
The thoughts Gabirol to Spinoza taught,
      Freedom to dig the common earth, to drink
The universal air—for this they sought
      Refuge o'er wave and continent, to link
Egypt with Texas in their mystic chain,
And truth's perpetual lamp forbid to wane.

Hark! through the quiet evening air, their song
      Floats forth with wild sweet rhythm and glad refrain.
They sing the conquest of the spirit strong,
      The soul that wrests the victory from pain;
The noble joys of manhood that belong
      To comrades and to brothers. In their strain
Rustle of palms and Eastern streams one hears,
And the broad prairie melts in mist of tears.

This poem is in the public domain.

This poem is in the public domain.

Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus

Posthumously famous for her sonnet, "The New Colossus," which is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus is considered America's first important Jewish poet

by this poet

poem
I see it as it looked one afternoon
In August,—by a fresh soft breeze o'erblown.
The swiftness of the tide, the light thereon,
A far-off sail, white as a crescent moon.
The shining waters with pale currents strewn,
The quiet fishing-smacks, the Eastern cove,
The semi-circle of its dark, green grove.
The luminous
poem
As when a father dies, his children draw 
About the empty hearth, their loss to cheat 
With uttered praise & love, & oft repeat 
His all-familiar words with whispered awe. 
The honored habit of his daily law, 
Not for his sake, but theirs whose feeble feet 
Need still that guiding lamp, whose faith, less
poem
Night, and beneath star-blazoned summer skies
   Behold the Spirit of the musky South,
A creole with still-burning, languid eyes,
   Voluptuous limbs and incense-breathing mouth:
         Swathed in spun gauze is she,
From fibres of her own anana tree.

Within these sumptuous woods she lies at ease,
   By rich