Emma Lazarus (July 22, 1849 – November 19, 1887) was an American poet born in New York City.
She is best known for writing "The New Colossus", a sonnet written in 1883, that is now engraved on a bronze plaque on a wall in the base of the Statue of Liberty. The sonnet was solicited by William Maxwell Evarts as a donation to an auction, conducted by the "Art Loan Fund Exhibition in Aid of the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund for the Statue of Liberty" to raise funds to build the pedestal. Lazarus was the fourth of seven children of Moses Lazarus and Esther Nathan, Portuguese Sephardic Jews whose families were long settled in New York, and was related through her mother to Benjamin N. Cardozo. From an early age, she studied American and European literature, as well as several languages, including German, French, and Italian. Her writings attracted the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who corresponded with her up until his death.
Lazarus is buried in Beth-Olom Cemetery in Brooklyn. She wrote her own original poems and edited many adaptations of German and Italian poems, notably those of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Heinrich Heine. She also wrote a novel and two plays.
The New Colossus
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!"
Emma Lazarus, 1883
Lazarus' latent Judaism was awakened after reading the George Eliot novel, Daniel Deronda, and this was further strengthened by the Russian pogroms in the early 1880s. This led Lazarus to write articles on the subject and to begin translating the works of Jewish poets into English. When Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews, expelled in great numbers from the Russian Pale of Settlement began to appear in destitute multitudes in New York in the winter of 1882, Lazarus interested herself actively in providing technical education to make them self-supporting. She traveled twice to Europe, first in May 1885 after the death of her father in March and again in September 1887. She returned to New York City seriously ill after her second trip and died two months later on 19 November 1887, most likely from Hodgkin's disease.
She is known as an important forerunner of the Zionist movement. In fact, she argued for the creation of a Jewish homeland thirteen years before Herzl began to use the term Zionism.