The New Colossus: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:02 'The New Colossus'
  • 1:01 Analyzing 'The New Colossus'
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You've probably heard the phrase 'huddled masses yearning to breathe free' a million times, but did you know it's from 'The New Colossus?' Check out this lesson, where you'll find a synopsis and analysis of this poem on the Statue of Liberty!

A Brief Synopsis of 'The New Colossus' by Emma Lazarus

Even though the Statue of Liberty hadn't yet been constructed when Emma Lazarus began work on her poem 'The New Colossus' in 1883, she already understood what such a symbol would represent to Americans, both native and new: a warm and welcoming beacon of hope.

She opens the piece by contrasting the intimidating and ancient Colossus of Rhodes with the new colossal figure of a mighty woman who cordially greets all those who enter New York Harbor.

The statue herself then takes over the poetic narration as she draws more contrasts between America and the Old World, by claiming that the 'ancient lands' are more concerned with 'storied pomp' than the welfare of their people. She then calls out to all the disenfranchised throughout the world, beckoning them to a life of freedom and opportunity: 'I lift my lamp beside the golden door!'

Mother of Exiles: Analyzing 'The New Colossus'

If you've spent any time in an English class, you're probably somewhat familiar with the sonnets of Shakespeare. To help us better understand Emma Lazarus' famous poem, it's important to know that it is also a sonnet, only it's a type known as a Petrarchan sonnet, an Italian sonnet form that divides the poem by rhyme groups into a section of eight lines (octave), followed by one of six (sestet).

The octave of Lazarus' sonnet begins by establishing the stark contrasts between the old Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the New Colossus that is to take its place as a mark of human endeavor. For Lazarus, the old statue is masculine and oppressive, symbolizing the often domineering nature of Old World patriarchies.

On the other hand, the new one is a 'mighty woman,' who brandishes a torch 'whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning,' which refers not only the harnessing of electricity, but also her ability to command a force often reserved for Zeus, Thor, or other male deities. Through a combination of her soft features and firm hand, she becomes the Mother of Exiles, both in a traditional nurturing sense, and in reference to matronly authority that allows her to 'command / The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.'

No matter what type it is, every sonnet contains a volta (Italian for 'turn') of some sort, which represents a change in the poem's subject. In Petrarchan sonnets, like this one, the change in subject occurs at the beginning of the final sestet. In 'The New Colossus,' the sestet starts with a change of narrator (now the statue herself), who returns to the work of contrasting America and the Old World.

With her aforementioned authority, Lady Liberty denounces the oppressive ways of Old World societies, which seem more concerned with keeping up appearances ('storied pomp') than tending to their people. She further demonstrates her own power by asserting that she is more than willing and able to accommodate all those throughout the world who would seek to escape hunger, poverty, and tyranny. By calling to her all the world's 'huddled masses yearning to breathe free,' the New Colossus is essentially saying to the rest of the world that she can take care of their own people far better than they could've hoped to.

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