Thursday, April 14, 2011

L is for ... Lazarus

- also, Late (which this post is); and Lie (which the timestamp on this post is).

The late Emma Lazarus lies interred in Beth-Olom Cemetery, in Brooklyn, New York. A poet, she is best known for "The New Colossus," which is to be found engraved on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty, on what is now Liberty Island in New York Harbor (but perhaps not in New York... boundaries are arbitrary and capricious things). The poem contains several memorable but oft-misquoted phrases:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "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!"

The poem is written in a sonnet form famously associated with the Elizabethan poet and playwright known as "Shakespeare." It was Lazarus' contribution to an art auction to support the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund - this fund raised money in the United States for the erection of a pedestal to support the statue being constructed by the French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi to commemorate the ideals of international republicanism, and the American inspiration for the French Revolution. As the poem relates, this collaboration recalls an earlier statuesque harbor guardian: the Colossus of Rhodes. Bartholdi's own title for the statue was La Liberté éclairant le monde, or Liberty Enlightening the World; Lazarus' poem transformed it into a symbol for the great melting pot of American multiculturalism, a welcomer of the world's "tired... poor... huddled masses."

Although the poem was provided to an auction to raise money for the Statue, and was read at the exhibition of artworks contributed to that auction, it was not present in any form at the Statue's official opening in 1886. When Lazarus died a year later, her poem seemed to have died with her. But her friend Georgina Schuyler, a descendant of the founders of New York City, found the poem and embarked on an ultimately successful campaign to have Lazarus immortalized. Her poem was installed in 1903, and the Statue of Liberty became a beacon attracting immigrants from all over the world. Currently administered by the National Parks Authority, the Statue of Liberty was originally the responsibility of the United States Lighthouse Board; incongruously, when Emma Lazarus transformed its character from beyond the grave, it was under the care of the Department of War.

Almost exactly halfway between the opening of the new Colossus and its adornment with "the New Colossus," another poem was authored, this one by Thomas Bailey Aldrich. Almost certainly, Aldrich was not consciously responding to Lazarus, who had by then been dead eight years; but his "Unguarded Gates" takes an altogether more cynical view of those "huddled masses" flooding into New York Harbor:

WIDE open and unguarded stand our gates,
Named of the four winds, North, South, East, and West;
Portals that lead to an enchanted land
Of cities, forests, fields of living gold,
Vast prairies, lordly summits touched with snow,
Majestic rivers sweeping proudly past
The Arab's date-palm and the Norseman's pine
A realm wherein are fruits of every zone,
Airs of all climes, for lo! throughout the year
The red rose blossoms somewhere - a rich land,
A later Eden planted in the wilds,
With not an inch of earth within its bound
But if a slave's foot press it sets him free.
Here, it is written, Toil shall have its wage,
And Honor honor, and the humblest man
Stand level with the highest in the law.
Of such a land have men in dungeons dreamed,
And with the vision brightening in their eyes
Gone smiling to the fagot and the sword.

Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,
And through them presses a wild motley throng
Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes,
Featureless figures of the Hoang-Ho,
Malayan, Scythian, Teuton, Kelt, and Slav,
Flying the Old World's poverty and scorn;
These bringing with them unknown gods and rites,
Those, tiger passions, here to stretch their claws.
In street and alley what strange tongues are loud,
Accents of menace alien to our air,
Voices that once the Tower of Babel knew!
O Liberty, white Goddess! is it well
To leave the gates unguarded? On thy breast
Fold Sorrow's children, soothe the hurts of fate,
Lift the down-trodden, but with hand of steel
Stay those who to thy sacred portals come
To waste the gifts of freedom. Have a care
Lest from thy brow the clustered stars be torn
And trampled in the dust. For so of old
The thronging Goth and Vandal trampled Rome,
And where the temples of the Caesars stood
The lean wolf unmolested made her lair.

Between them, these two poems give expression to a dialectic that continues to resonate today; one which, fittingly, has several dimensions and one to which I shall return otherwhen.

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