What Is the Imagery in the Poem "The New Colossus"?

In 1945, the engraved lines of Emma Lazarus' poem, "The New Colossus," were placed over the entrance to the Statue of Liberty. Though the statue was intended to be a symbol of enlightenment for Europeans battling oppression at home, Lazarus' poem transformed Lady Liberty into something more -- a beacon of hope for immigrants leaving those very countries.

Greek Myth

The Statue of Liberty in this poem is presented in contrast to the old Colossus -- a statue of the Greek Titan, Helios -- that once stood on the island of Rhodes to commemorate a military victory. "Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame / With conquering limbs astride from land to land ..." writes Lazarus, introducing the concept of a new colossus, one that represents not conquest but, as becomes apparent in the developing imagery, one of welcome.


The Statue of Liberty stands, in the words of Lazarus, "A mighty woman ... her name Mother of Exiles ..." The image of a the mother figure conjures hospitality and security to those arriving in the new land, America. She is presented as a woman strong and mighty, but also one warm and familiar. The imagery of motherhood evokes home, something immigrants had left behind and often would never see again. Lady Liberty embodies in her maternal dignity the country she represents -- a place of refuge.


The torch is one of the Statue of Liberty's most enduring symbols. Lazarus writes, "... with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning, and ... From her beacon-hand / Glows world-wide welcome ... I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" The imagery of the torch evokes a light in the darkness, a beacon to follow toward a new land of opportunity -- land that can be accessed through a golden door. The golden door represents the passage way into the many hopes and dreams immigrants harbored as they debarked at Ellis Island.


Finally, the imagery directly refers to those the "New Colossus" is greeting and welcoming into New York Harbor and, so, America -- immigrants. Conjuring first images of an old world, Lazarus writes, "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp! ... The wretched refuse of your teeming shore." The words convey a sense of Europe and its long history, including its stories of monarchs and tyrants, as ideas lacking value. She goes on to write, "Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me ... Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ..." The cast off souls, unable to find promise or opportunity and often subject to religious and ethnic persecution, are welcomed to a new place where they can begin again.

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