Emma Lazarus, The Poet Behind the Statue of Liberty’s Iconic Words


Discover the inspiring life and literary legacy of Emma Lazarus, the talented poet who penned “The New Colossus,” the iconic lines engraved on the Statue of Liberty. Explore her early years, advocacy for social justice and immigrants, and the enduring impact of her powerful words on American culture and identity.

emma lazarus

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) was an American poet, essayist, and advocate for social justice and immigration. She is best known for her sonnet “The New Colossus,” which was written in 1883 and later became famous for being inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The poem was composed as part of an effort to raise funds for the construction of the statue’s pedestal.

“The New Colossus” is a powerful piece that symbolizes America as a welcoming refuge for immigrants. Its most famous lines are:

“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!”


Lazarus’s work emphasized the idea of America as a land of opportunity and a place that welcomed those fleeing persecution and seeking a better life. Over the years, her poem has become a symbol of hope and a testament to the United States’ tradition of immigration and inclusion. It highlights the importance of compassion and acceptance towards those in need and remains an essential part of American literary and cultural heritage.

Early years and education

Emma Lazarus was born on July 22, 1849, in New York City, United States. She was the fourth of seven children in a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family of Portuguese descent. Her father, Moses Lazarus, was a successful sugar merchant, and her mother, Esther Nathan, came from a prominent family.

From an early age, Emma Lazarus displayed a love for literature and writing. She began composing poetry at a young age and was encouraged by her family to pursue her literary interests. Her early influences included the works of William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Lazarus received a private education at home, where she had access to an extensive library, which further fueled her intellectual growth. She was well-read in literature, history, and languages, including English, German, French, and Italian.

In addition to her literary pursuits, Lazarus was actively involved in charitable work, particularly in assisting Jewish immigrants who arrived in New York fleeing persecution in Europe. These experiences would later influence her advocacy for social justice and immigration reform.

At the age of seventeen, she published her first book of poetry, “Poems and Translations” (1867), which garnered positive reviews and established her as a promising young writer.

Despite facing challenges due to gender and religious discrimination during her time, Emma Lazarus continued to write prolifically and engage in various philanthropic activities throughout her life. Her work and legacy are particularly remembered for her advocacy for the marginalized and her immortalization of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of freedom and refuge for immigrants.


Biography and Career

Emma Lazarus was born on July 22, 1849, in New York City, USA, to a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family. She grew up in a cultured and intellectually stimulating environment, which fostered her love for literature and writing from an early age. Lazarus was educated at home and became proficient in multiple languages, including English, German, French, and Italian.

Despite facing gender and religious discrimination in the male-dominated literary world of her time, Emma Lazarus persevered and continued to write poetry and essays that addressed social issues and advocated for the rights of immigrants and the oppressed.


  1. Early Works and Recognition: Emma Lazarus’s literary career began with the publication of her first book of poetry, “Poems and Translations,” in 1867, when she was just seventeen years old. The collection received favorable reviews and established her as a promising young poet.
  2. Influences and Style: Lazarus’s early poetry was influenced by the Romantic and Victorian traditions, and she often addressed themes of love, loss, and nature. However, as she matured, her writing increasingly focused on social justice issues, particularly the plight of Jewish immigrants and the importance of a homeland for the Jewish people.
  3. Philanthropic Activities: Lazarus was deeply involved in charitable work, particularly in assisting Jewish immigrants arriving in New York City. She volunteered at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which helped newcomers find jobs and settle into American life.
  4. Immigration Advocacy and “The New Colossus”: In 1883, Lazarus was asked to contribute a poem to help raise funds for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, which was being gifted to the United States by France. Her sonnet “The New Colossus” became her most famous work and is now indelibly associated with the statue. The poem depicted the United States as a refuge for immigrants, with the iconic lines, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
  5. Published Works: Aside from “The New Colossus,” Lazarus wrote numerous essays, poems, and translations throughout her career. Some of her other notable works include “Admetus and Other Poems” (1871), “Alide: An Episode in Goethe’s Life” (1874), and “Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death and Other Poems” (1882).

Emma Lazarus’s later works reflected her growing interest in her Jewish heritage and her involvement in Zionist circles. She corresponded with prominent Jewish figures of her time, such as historian Heinrich Graetz and writer David G. Rosenthal, and actively supported the idea of a Jewish homeland.

Emma Lazarus’s life was tragically cut short when she died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma on November 19, 1887, at the age of 38. Despite her relatively short life, her contributions to literature, social justice, and immigration advocacy have left a lasting impact, and her words continue to inspire people around the world.


Emma Lazarus’s life was tragically cut short by illness. She was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer, and her health gradually deteriorated. Despite her declining condition, she continued to write and remained engaged in philanthropic activities until the end. Emma Lazarus passed away on November 19, 1887, at the age of 38, in New York City, where she had spent her entire life. Her death was mourned by many, and she was remembered as a gifted poet, a compassionate advocate, and a symbol of hope for immigrants.


Emma Lazarus’s legacy extends far beyond her own lifetime, largely due to her iconic poem “The New Colossus.” While she achieved some recognition as a poet during her lifetime, it was her posthumous fame that solidified her place in American literary and cultural history. Here are some aspects of her enduring legacy:

  1. “The New Colossus”: Lazarus’s sonnet, written in 1883 and inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903, has become a symbol of American ideals and the nation’s welcoming stance towards immigrants. The poem’s iconic lines, particularly “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” have resonated with generations of people seeking freedom and opportunity in the United States. “The New Colossus” has played a significant role in shaping the perception of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of hope and liberty worldwide.
  2. Advocacy for Immigration and Social Justice: Lazarus’s passionate advocacy for immigrants and social justice has left a lasting impact on American society. Her writings, essays, and philanthropic work have inspired others to fight for the rights of the marginalized and promote compassion and acceptance.
  3. Rediscovery and Recognition: In the decades following her death, Emma Lazarus’s literary works gained increasing recognition. Scholars and critics recognized her talent, and her poems were anthologized in various collections. Her influence can be seen in the works of other writers, particularly those who tackle similar themes of social justice and identity.
  4. Commemorations and Tributes: Throughout the years, numerous commemorations and tributes have been made to honor Emma Lazarus’s memory and contributions. The Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs was founded in 1903 in her honor. Additionally, various schools, buildings, and institutions have been named after her to acknowledge her impact on literature and society.
  5. Continued Relevance: Emma Lazarus’s work continues to resonate in contemporary discussions surrounding immigration, human rights, and the American identity. Her messages of inclusion and compassion remain relevant, inspiring ongoing efforts to create a more welcoming and just society.

Emma Lazarus may have lived a relatively short life, but her words and advocacy have had a profound and enduring impact. Her memory lives on as an enduring symbol of the American dream and the belief in a more inclusive and compassionate world.

Leave A Reply