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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.

The New Year

Emma Lazarus, 1849 - 1887
Rosh-Hashanah, 5643

Not while the snow-shroud round dead earth is rolled,
      And naked branches point to frozen skies.—
When orchards burn their lamps of fiery gold,
      The grape glows like a jewel, and the corn
A sea of beauty and abundance lies,
                      Then the new year is born.

Look where the mother of the months uplifts
      In the green clearness of the unsunned West,
Her ivory horn of plenty, dropping gifts,
      Cool, harvest-feeding dews, fine-winnowed light;
Tired labor with fruition, joy and rest
                      Profusely to requite.

Blow, Israel, the sacred cornet! Call
      Back to thy courts whatever faint heart throb
With thine ancestral blood, thy need craves all.
      The red, dark year is dead, the year just born
Leads on from anguish wrought by priest and mob,
                      To what undreamed-of morn?

For never yet, since on the holy height,
      The Temple’s marble walls of white and green
Carved like the sea-waves, fell, and the world’s light
      Went out in darkness,—never was the year
Greater with portent and with promise seen,
                      Than this eve now and here.

Even as the Prophet promised, so your tent
      Hath been enlarged unto earth’s farthest rim.
To snow-capped Sierras from vast steppes ye went,
      Through fire and blood and tempest-tossing wave,
For freedom to proclaim and worship Him,
                      Mighty to slay and save.

High above flood and fire ye held the scroll,
      Out of the depths ye published still the Word.
No bodily pang had power to swerve your soul:
      Ye, in a cynic age of crumbling faiths,
Lived to bear witness to the living Lord,
                      Or died a thousand deaths.

In two divided streams the exiles part,
      One rolling homeward to its ancient source,
One rushing sunward with fresh will, new heart.
      By each the truth is spread, the law unfurled,
Each separate soul contains the nation’s force,
                      And both embrace the world.

Kindle the silver candle’s seven rays,
      Offer the first fruits of the clustered bowers,
The garnered spoil of bees. With prayer and praise
      Rejoice that once more tried, once more we prove
How strength of supreme suffering still is ours
                      For Truth and Law and Love.

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
Late-born and woman-souled I dare not hope, 
The freshness of the elder lays, the might 
Of manly, modern passion shall alight 
Upon my Muse's lips, nor may I cope 
(Who veiled and screened by womanhood must grope) 
With the world's strong-armed warriors and recite 
The dangers, wounds, and triumphs of the fight
poem

Little Poems in Prose

I. The Exodus. (August 3, 1492.)

1. The Spanish noon is a blaze of azure fire, and the dusty pilgrims crawl like an endless serpent along treeless plains and bleached highroads, through rock-split ravines and castellated, cathedral-shadowed towns.

2. The hoary

poem
Yet life is not a vision nor a prayer,
But stubborn work; she may not shun her task.
After the first compassion, none will spare
Her portion and her work achieved, to ask.
She pleads for respite,—she will come ere long
When, resting by the roadside, she is strong.

Nay, for the hurrying throng of passers-by
Will