Strange women standing in harbors distributing poetry is no basis for a system of government. But if we were going to base our public policy on a poem, we ought to choose a better one than “The New Colossus.”
Emma Lazarus was a New York City socialite during an era in which it was fashionable for such women to pretend to be following literary careers. She studied languages (German, French, and Italian), toured Europe, met figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Morris, and, to her credit, produced a fair amount of work: poems, plays, translations. She also adopted social causes: She was a Zionist before the term even existed, an advocate for Jewish immigrants, and a “Georgist,” a follower of the eccentric political economist Henry George, whose proposal for a single tax on the value of land was popular in progressive and radical circles.
(The Georgists are an enthusiastic bunch when it comes to public relations: Lazarus’s Wikipedia page identifies her as a “poet and Georgist from New York City,” which is true in the sense that Kenny Rogers is a songwriter and poultryman from Houston; the Georgists also sometimes claim William F. Buckley Jr., who, so far as I can tell, said about three positive sentences about the Georgist tax over the course of a long public career. Wrestling over the legacy of Henry George used to be something of an intellectual sport: Buckley’s mentor, Alfred Jay Nock, wrote a book on George, and the libertarian Frank Chodorov was for a time the head of the Henry George School in New York City but resigned after a sustained conflict with the socialists who claimed George as one of their own. Different times.)
For Emma Lazarus, the literary and the political were entirely united. Her interest in Jewish issues was less related to her Jewish ancestry than it was to her reading Daniel Deronda, after which she wrote Songs of a Semite and helped to found the Hebrew Technical Institute. Politics touched most of her work: She published a poem in the New York Times titled “Progress and Poverty (after Reading Mr. Henry George)” the bombast and fustian of which—
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 brow of heaven to stamp.
—is, unfortunately, typical of Lazarus’s verse.
As reptilian White House aide Stephen Miller noted in his recent televised immigration-policy dust-up with hypertensive CNN reporter Jim Acosta, Lazarus’s most famous poem was added to the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal long after the installation of the work. In fact, “The New Colossus” is an example of that lowest form of literary expression: occasional verse. The Art Loan Fund Exhibition in Aid of the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund for the Statue of Liberty solicited a poem from Lazarus as part of its efforts to raise money for a proper base for Liberty Enlightening the World (that is the actual title of the Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi statue towering over New York Harbor), and Lazarus—these stories always seem to go like this—originally declined. She was interested in issues related to immigration and—here Miller has the better of the argument—the gigantic sculptural tribute to republicanism then being planned was not directly related to those concerns.
Her fellow literary socialite Constance Cary Harrison convinced her to contribute a verse, arguing that the Statue of Liberty, whatever it was formally intended to commemorate, would be the first thing immigrants sailing into New York City would see. It was a much smaller world then, and a more forgiving one: Lazarus was from an old, pre-Revolutionary New York Jewish family and was steeped in progressive politics, whereas Harrison, the better-known public figure at the time, was a Mississippi native married to Jefferson Davis’s personal secretary and had sewn the first Confederate battle flag. And it was her idea to co-opt the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of liberal attitudes toward immigration.
The poem was duly written and submitted, and it was read at the opening of the fund-raising exhibition, which was chaired by former secretary of state William M. Evarts. It was printed in a catalogue for the exhibition—and then it was forgotten. It was not even read at the Statue of Liberty’s opening ceremony. It is not impossible to imagine why. All these years later, “The New Colossus” has acquired a patina of pure, old-fashioned American sentimentality. It is almost impossible for an American to hear its words without being moved. But it is not a very good poem. It is more of an example of what Noël Coward described as the potency of cheap music.
Here’s what it says:
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!”
The rhyme scheme (ABBA ABBA, etc.) and the break between the first eight lines (the “octet”) and the final six (the “sestet”) identify “The New Colossus” as a Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet, the formal demands of which often are satisfied, as above, only clumsily in English. Hence the banal rhymes (“fame”/“name,” “she”/“me”), which, along with the imperfectly executed pentameter (particularly deformed in lines one and nine), the cutesy metaphor about electric lighting (a novelty at the time), and the hackneyed classical allusion that is the basis for the whole thing, mark this as a failed poem. Perhaps we should here bear in mind T. S. Eliot’s observation that while many critics are failed writers, so are most writers. There’s a failed editor at work here, too: The version of the poem inscribed at the base of the statue is missing a comma.
Typographic sloppiness notwithstanding, if one were attempting to write a sonnet singing the praises of an open-armed immigration policy, would “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” really be the choicest image? I can imagine my friend Mark Krikorian, the nation’s leading immigration restrictionist, dismissing the “wretched refuse” of Mexico’s teeming barrios, but, even if we allow for the evolution of the word “wretched” over the years (it probably sounded less pejorative to Emma Lazarus), we are still left with “refuse,” i.e., human garbage, a rhetorical line that, unless I have missed something, even Donald Trump has not crossed. Huddled masses? The homeless? We are not even very comfortable with the bad hombres.
Wretched refuse? What are we? Australia?
As the late Andrew Breitbart famously put it: Politics is downstream from culture. “Let me make the songs of a nation,” Andrew Fletcher wrote, “and I care not who makes its laws.” He would have held up poor silly Jim Acosta as Exhibit A. Acosta quoted “The New Colossus” at Stephen Miller and then charged that the immigration reforms under consideration by the Trump administration—which would replace family-based “chain migration” with an economically oriented points system as is found in Canada and New Zealand—was “not in keeping with American tradition.” The usual insipidness ensued, with critics pointing out that Miller’s own ancestors passed through Ellis Island in the early days of the 20th century—as though Miller would be obliged to defend horse-thievery if it were discovered that his ancestors had been horse thieves.
Acosta insisted upon the poem, but the poem is and was at odds with the realities of American immigration policy, then and now. Emma Lazarus was not a policy wonk but a gilded idealist. In reality, would-be immigrants could be rejected at Ellis Island for any number of reasons, and were: sickness, political extremism (we were very worried about anarchists back then—maybe Henry George’s fault!), and, not least, being “likely to become a public charge.” A great deal of the concern of current immigration reformers is to ensure that the immigration office is not metaphorically (or literally) next door to the welfare office. Ranking would-be immigrants economically is more a restoration of the Ellis Island–era policy than a departure from it.
Reliance on poetry and myth—on sentimentality—is very useful in these situations. The United States and the United Kingdom both had very open immigration policies, and both turned toward more restrictive policies around the turn of the 20th century. No one ever asks why that golden age of immigration liberalism came to an end, but the most obvious answer is: It produced results that a great many people did not like very much. Hurl all the accusations of “hypocrisy” you like at the Stephen Millers of the world, but there are many descendants of Yiddish-speaking people in New York—and of Spanish-speaking people in Texas—who have concluded that our immigration policies are in need of reform and that more robust regulation is in order. The second-rate verse of a middling 19th-century poetess is not a magical trump card that makes such calculations irrelevant.
Unless you are, like Jim Acosta, a television performer. And then it’s “Let me make the poems of a nation, and I care not who makes its immigration policy.”