I’m in the midst of my poetry unit with my AP Literature students, and right now we’re examining the form of poetry. Last class, we analyzed the traditional structure of a Shakespearean sonnet, and tomorrow my lesson plans included, coincidentally, one of my favorite Petrarchan sonnets so that students could contrast the two forms. The poem in question is “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus’s famous sonnet that adorns the Statue of Liberty.
"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!"
This poem is a beautiful expression of one of our core American values—that we would strive to be a beacon of hope in this world, welcoming those fleeing oppression in search of our elusive yet captivating American Dream. It’s an ideal written into the fabric of our national ethos, stamped in bronze on a symbol of who we strive to be.
And yet. It is now national policy to ban admittance to immigrants from seven countries, regardless of the vetting these people might have undergone. Green card holders—legal residents—will be turned away. Thousands of refugees who have been seeking asylum within our borders for years must now turn elsewhere, seized at airports like criminals.
So, tomorrow I will begin my lesson on the Petrarchan form, but as is so often with literature the intersection between art and life is too near to the surface to ignore. I hope as my students’ engage with this century-old promise they embrace its values. I hope that messages of hope and empathy can still resonate in today’s rhetoric of fear.
In parting, I’ll leave a political cartoon from a distant, and I still hope different, time. Let us learn from our past without repeating it.