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The Statue of Liberty
How Emma’s sonnet immortalized the “Mother of Exiles”
We are very pleased to publish one of the letters due to appear in a volume soon to be published: Saluti da New York (Greetings from New York) by Joseph Tusiani, edited by Antonio Motta, Centro Documentazione Leonardo Sciascia, series “Vele” 2, San Marco in Lamis by Joseph Tusiani
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The Statue of Liberty. Photo by Santi Visalli

      Rather than from the Statue of Liberty, dear Antonio, these greetings come to you from New York Harbor, which was discovered, in 1524, by the Florentine Giovanni da Verrazzano, who, in these colorful words, described it on the limpid morning of his arrival: “After a hundred leagues, we found a very agreeable site, between two small eminent hills, between which flowed a great river with a deep mouth big enough for even the most imposing of cargo ships to navigate it.”

      In the middle of this bay, between Manhattan and Staten Island, on the rocky island of Bedloe, with its scarcely four hectares of surface area, stands, “Liberty enlightening the world”, as it is officially called.

      93 meters tall, including its 47 meter pedestal, it is visible from 40 kilometers away, and represents a majestic goddess clad in a loose stola, who, with her right hand is proudly raising a lighted torch and in her left jealously clutches a tabula ansata on which is etched the date of 4th July 1776, the day of American Independence.

      I’m not sending you these greetings, though, to remind you of what you already know, but to reveal something to you that you might be unaware of. You will have already recalled the three names associated with the history of this American monument, one of the wonders of the world: René de Laboulaye, the statesman whose brainchild the statue is; Auguste Bartholdi, its sculptor, and Gustave Eiffel (the creator of the tower of the same name), who we might call a logistics engineer. Because it was no simple feat to ship the New Colossus to the American Continent. They needed a ship capable of several transatlantic crossings to freight, in more than 1,883 crates, all numbered and catalogued for their future assembly, the blocks of granite of which “Liberty” was composed. And above all, it cost a hundred million dollars for the building of the pedestal on which to place it and display to the veneration of future centuries.

      And this is where I get to the part that excites you and me, and which speaks to the world with the voice of poetry, in particular with that of a young poetess by the name of Emma Lazarus, the daughter of a very wealthy Jewish merchant in New York. Born in 1849, a few months before the death of Edgar Allan Poe, Emma was thirty-two when, in the first few days of August 1881, the first “human cargo” of Jews, expelled from Russia after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, landed in New York.

      That day, for the first time, Emma witnessed the painful sight of those wretched, starving, beaten, persecuted people, and the sight caused her to overcome the shyness of the young, retiring student, excessively submissive to her father’s wishes, and find her fighting spirit. We can imagine how Emma received the news of a statue of Liberty in the bay of New York, and with what ardour she must have replied to the invitation from the Committee for the reception of the “biggest statue in the world”, to donate a piece of writing, which, together with those of men of letters like Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Bret Harte, would be put on sale, with the proceeds going to the fund, at a public auction in an art gallery on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Twenty-third Street.

      The same Committee had started a competition for the best sonnet to be inscribed on the pedestal of the statue “built” in France. It was she, Emma Lazarus, who won it; she, who, more than anybody else, had identified with the tragedy of a people oppressed by centuries of prejudice, the terror of being forced to emigrate in search of bread, liberty, political security, the brotherhood of man; she, who, in a moment of grace, managed to entrust all this to her poetical talent.

      The sonnet entitled The New Colossus was composed in 1883, before Emma had even seen Bartholdi’s statue. Three years later, on 28th October 1886, the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland, revealed “Liberty enlightening the world”, but Emma was by now in Europe, battling with a terrible illness which was to lead to her death some months later, on 19th November 1887. It was only in 1903, thanks to Georgiana Schuyler, a long-time admirer of the young poet, that the sonnet that the venerated man of letters and poet James Russell Lowell admired more than the statue itself, was finally inscribed on the pedestal.

      It is this sonnet that renders secondary and almost superfluous all other details of the life of Emma Lazarus: like, for example her visit to England where she met Robert Browning, William Morris and other Pre-Raphaelites; her visit to Italy where the tombs of Keats and Shelley drew her more than once; the fact that she spoke German and Italian perfectly and translated from both languages, especially from Dante, Petrarca, and Carducci, whose ode In una Chiesa Gotica she finished translating on her deathbed.

      So, then, what is so exceptional about this sonnet by Lazarus?

      Let’s read it again and we will find everything: geographical precision, the essential features of the sculptured figure, the sudden apparition, living and breathing, of all the outcasts and rejects of the earth, and, at the end, the immortal beam of the lighted beacon over the golden door.

 

 

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!”

 

Joseph Tusiani

 

New York, February 9th 2011

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