In the afterlife of Lazarus’s poems, the words that the statue cries out in the sestet—the final six lines of the poem—have often been treated as though they were identical to the voice speaking the rest of the poem. They are, however, the imagined voice of a figure within the poem. Over the 14 lines of the sonnet, the poem moves from making a negative comparison to the Colossus of Rhodes to animating the “new Colossus” with a voice, an instance of what literary critics call personification or, to use the more unwieldy term, prosopopoeia:
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!”
What the poem does, through its shifts in figurative language from comparison to personification, is just as important as what it says explicitly. Rather than standing guard, or extending open arms, the “Mother of Exiles”—a gendered, racialized figure—cries out with its “silent lips.” The difference, then, is not only in what this Colossus represents—its liberal values of hospitality, diversity, and inclusion—but also in the speaking figure that the poem creates. The sonnet ends by compelling its readers to hear this invitation. It is a response that anticipates the cries of affliction that it knows are coming.
The philosopher Simone Weil argues that the impersonal cry of “Why am I being hurt?” accompanies claims to human rights. To refuse to hear this cry of affliction, Weil continues, is the gravest injustice one might do to another. The voice of the statue in Lazarus’s poem can almost be heard as an uncanny reply, avant la lettre, to one of the slogans chanted by immigrants and refugees around the world today: “We are here because you were there.” The statue’s cry is a response to one version of Weil’s “Why am I being hurt” that specifies the global relation between the arrival of immigrants and the expansion of the colonial system.
The cry of the tired, poor, and huddled heard by Lazarus’s poem is manifest today within the poetry written and recited by women exiles, freedom fighters, imprisoned activists, and detainees. “A Female Cry,” by the Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, asserts the right, not to resources, but to something more than an accommodation by the existing system. Here are the final two stanzas of the poem:
O my dream, kidnapped from my younger years
Silence has ravaged us
Our tears have become a sea
Our patience has bored of us
Together, we rise up for sure
Whatever it was we wanted to be.
So let’s go
Raise up a cry
In the face of those shadowy ghosts.
For how long, O fire within,
Will you scorch my breast with tears?
And how long, O scream,
Will you remain in the hearts of women!
Tatour demands more than patience and tears, of which she has more than enough; she calls for an uprising on behalf of “whatever it was we wanted to be.” Tatour’s addresses—to dream, fire, and scream—are the addresses of the genuinely tired, poor, and huddled (as well as detained and imprisoned) rather than those of the model liberal subject. The colossal cry has burst its sonnet’s narrow cell: It appears as one possible form in which the poetry of a global uprising anticipates and prefigures the moment of revolution itself.