PS 268, on East 53rd Street between Clarkson Avenue and Winthrop Street, bears an image of the Statue of Liberty on its front door, quite fitting because its namesake poet’s most famous work has been inscribed on a bronze plaque in the pedestal of the Harbor Lady since 1902.
Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) was not an immigrant, as you would expect. Her family, of Sephardic Jewish extraction, had resided in New York City for several generations. She became a poet, playwright and novelist in her youth, her work attracting the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the 1880s she became acutely aware of the depredations of European Jews and the pogroms in Russia, and wrote several fiction and nonfiction works about Jewish immigration to the United States.
Her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” was written for and donated to an organization raising funds for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. Lazarus was also an early voice for Zionism, the movement to give Jews a permanent homeland in Israel.
Lazarus passed away from Hodgkin’s lymphoma a year after the Lady Liberty was dedicated and it’s unknown if she ever laid eyes on the statue that inspired one of the most famous poems ever written:
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 actual pedestal leaves off the comma after “Keep,” making it grammatically incorrect! That comma makes a big difference.