Thursday, July 4, 2019

The Mother of Exiles

Someone online reminded me just now, on the verge of the 4th, of what we were or at least once imagined ourselves to be. He quoted the last stanza of a sonnet, words we all know, from a school-book, or choral score, or a field trip. The poem was written to raise money to erect a pedestal. The poem was written by a Jewish American woman whose family had been in this country since before the Revolution. The poem was made famous a decade after the poet’s death when her words were inscribed on a plaque placed at the foot of the Stature of Liberty. Emma Lazarus transformed what had been intended as a commemoration of republican fellow-feeling between old allies, into an internationally recognized beacon of welcome to the world.  Here is the whole poem:

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!"

-- Emma Lazarus

I’m not qualified to analyze a sonnet. I will only say I very much admire the poet, her intention, and her accomplishment. I remember reading this poem for the first time as an adult some years back and my shock at recognizing for the first time its subversion of my expectations, and the audacity with which this woman successfully redirected a great monument to a greater purpose. 

As I said, not my place to critique. Instead I offer the words of Emma Lazarus as a reminder. As we approach what turned out to be John Adams’ “most memorable epocha,” Independence Day, the glorious 4th, I would ask that we remember the Mother of Exiles, a mighty woman. We turn with horror from the pomp and illegal partisan jingo planned to desecrate the steps of the Lincoln Memorial tomorrow, what the poet elsewhere called, “the senseless outcry of the hour.” We turn back again in despair and rage to face the real horror of the detention camps, as we should. I ask only that we also, for this one day, think of her, the Mother of Exiles, a mighty woman. Think of the woman who gave her voice. Think of the generations, welcomed and unwelcome, who came seeking the promise in those words, seeking liberty. Take pride in the traditions and aspirations of all the ancestors now in this ground beneath our feet. 

And then, think again of the children separated from their parents, lost, of the people imprisoned without drinkable water, without space to lie down, think of all we are losing every day to the tyranny of little men without ideals, compassion, or sense. Think of the Mother of Exiles, a mighty woman. And fight. Resist. Donate. Write. Protest. Vote.

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