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October 25, 2014

Emma Lazarus, Sylvia Plath, Men

On this day in 1884 the cornerstone was laid for the pedestal of New York City's Statue of Liberty. Much of the rest of the money needed would be raised by Joseph Pulitzer through his campaign in The New York World for the penny-donations of the poor, but one of the most historic fund-raisers was an upper crust affair with a more literary slant. This was the Pedestal Art Loan Exhibition, to which Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and others had donated manuscripts for auction, and for which poet Emma Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus." Lazarus died 1887, a year after the Statue was erected; her poem fetched $1500, but it gathered dust for years until discovered in an old portfolio of Exhibition contributions. Lobbying by the poem's admirers had the famous last five lines ("Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free....") inscribed on a second-story landing by the turn of the century, and in 1945 the entire poem was installed at the base.

In some ways the earlier lines in the sonnet are more interesting. The Colossus of Rhodes was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a symbol of power and domination for the half-century it stood and an object of wonder for the centuries that it lay in gigantic pieces strewn about the harbor. Emma Lazurus was a champion of "the colossal experiment" that was America; she was also a champion of its home-grown literary tradition, and feminist-minded. When her friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson omitted her "late-born and woman-souled" verse from his poetry anthology she chewed him out for playing the patriarch. Her "New Colossus" is emphatic about avoiding the old male swagger:
    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....
Whether directed at her father or her husband, Sylvia Plath's 1960 poem, "The Colossus," also attempts to deal with the man-wreckage:
    I shall never get you put together entirely,
    Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.
    Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles
    Proceed from your great lips.
    It's worse than a barnyard.

    Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,
    Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.
    Thirty years now I have labored
    To dredge the silt from your throat.
    I am none the wiser....

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