Poetry Explorer

Classic and Contemporary Poets

Analysis:             Poet's Biography

Emma Lazarus (1849–1887) was an American Jewish poet born in New York City into a wealthy family. She is best known for her sonnet "The New Colossus," which is inscribed on a bronze plaque at the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Beyond this iconic poem, Lazarus’s oeuvre grapples with themes ranging from personal identity to the broader social issues of her time, reflecting her commitment to Jewish heritage and her advocacy for Jewish refugees.

Literary Background

Lazarus was a prolific writer from an early age, showing an early talent for poetry and language. She published her first book of poems and translations when she was just seventeen. Her literary work, deeply influenced by the American transcendentalist movement, notably by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom she met and corresponded with, is often noted for its lyrical quality and engagement with contemporary issues.

Early Influences

The early influences on Lazarus’s work include the literary traditions of romanticism and transcendentalism, particularly the works of Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Her family’s Jewish heritage and her exposure to the Sephardic Jewish culture also greatly influenced her writing, as she explored themes of exile, diaspora, and Jewish history.

Poetic Schools or Movements

Lazarus was not formally associated with any particular school or movement, though her writing was contemporaneous with the late romantic and early modernist movements. However, she can be loosely linked to the transcendentalists through her philosophical engagement and the social activism reflected in her poetry.

Poetic Oeuvre: Themes

Lazarus's poetry delves into themes of identity, particularly her own Jewish identity, in a time of rising antisemitism. Her later poetry often reflects her activism on behalf of Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. The universal notion of freedom and refuge, as expressed in "The New Colossus," is a theme that resonates throughout her work.

Her poetry also explores themes of transformation and rebirth, reflecting her belief in progress and her hopes for the Jewish people. Furthermore, Lazarus was ahead of her time in addressing the issues of women's experiences and their roles in society, both implicitly and explicitly, in her poetry.


Emma Lazarus's influence extends beyond the literary to the political and social realms. "The New Colossus" significantly shaped the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, transforming it from a celebration of American independence to a welcoming beacon for immigrants and refugees. Her work has inspired generations of Jewish American writers and activists, and her legacy is often invoked in discussions of American identity and immigration policy.


Though not widely celebrated during her lifetime as she is posthumously, Emma Lazarus has been honored in modern times in various ways. Her significant contribution to American culture and history was officially recognized when "The New Colossus" was mounted on the Statue of Liberty in 1903, sixteen years after her death.


Emma Lazarus’s contribution to American poetry is marked by a keen sense of empathy and a profound engagement with the social issues of her time. Her work bridges personal expression and public advocacy, and her best-known poem, "The New Colossus," encapsulates the spirit of America as a land of refuge and opportunity. Lazarus's poetry continues to resonate, her voice echoing in the contemporary discussions of national identity, immigration, and the American Dream. Her commitment to her heritage and her humanitarian outlook place her among the important social voices in 19th-century American poetry.

Copyright (c) 2024 PoetryExplorer

Discover our Poem Explanations and Poet Analyses!

Other Poems of Interest...

Home: PoetryExplorer.net