poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

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 South

Emma Lazarus, 1849 - 1887
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 night-breezes, dewy cool, caressed:
’Twixt cypresses and slim palmetto trees,
   Like to the golden oriole’s hanging nest,
         Her airy hammock swings,
And through the dark her mocking-bird yet sings.

How beautiful she is! A tulip-wreath
   Twines round her shadowy, free-floating hair:
Young, weary, passionate, and sad as death,
   Dark visions haunt for her the vacant air,
         While noiselessly she lies
With lithe, lax, folded hands and heavy eyes.

Full well knows she how wide and fair extend
   Her groves bright flowered, her tangled everglades,
Majestic streams that indolently wend
   Through lush savanna or dense forest shades,
         Where the brown buzzard flies
To broad bayous ’neath hazy-golden skies.

Hers is the savage splendor of the swamp,
   With pomp of scarlet and of purple bloom,
Where blow warm, furtive breezes faint and damp,
   Strange insects whir, and stalking bitterns boom—
         Where from stale waters dead
Oft looms the great jawed alligator’s head.

Her wealth, her beauty, and the blight on these,—
   Of all she is aware: luxuriant woods,
Fresh, living, sunlit, in her dream she sees;
   And ever midst those verdant solitudes
         The soldier’s wooden cross,
O’ergrown by creeping tendrils and rank moss.

Was hers a dream of empire? was it sin?
   And is it well that all was borne in vain?
She knows no more than one who slow doth win,
   After fierce fever, conscious life again,
         Too tired, too weak, too sad,
By the new light to be or stirred or glad.

From rich sea-islands fringing her green shore,
   From broad plantations where swart freemen bend
Bronzed backs in willing labor, from her store
   Of golden fruit, from stream, from town, ascend
         Life-currents of pure health:
Her aims shall be subserved with boundless wealth.

Yet now how listless and how still she lies,
   Like some half-savage, dusky Indian queen,
Rocked in her hammock ’neath her native skies,
   With the pathetic, passive, broken mien
         Of one who, sorely proved,
Great-souled, hath suffered much and much hath loved!

But look! along the wide-branched, dewy glade
   Glimmers the dawn: the light palmetto trees
And cypresses reissue from the shade,
   And she hath wakened. Through clear air she sees
         The pledge, the brightening ray,
And leaps from dreams to hail the coming day.

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
An Apologue

No man had ever heard a nightingale,
When once a keen-eyed naturalist was stirred
To study and define--what is a bird,
To classify by rote and book, nor fail
To mark its structure and to note the scale
Whereon its song might possibly be heard.
Thus far, no farther;--so he spake the
poem
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.
poem
Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate, 
Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword, 
The children of the prophets of the Lord, 
Prince, priest, and people, spurned by zealot hate. 
Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state, 
The West refused them, and the East abhorred. 
No anchorage the