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The Compass and the Torch

“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, The New Colossus 

There’s an interesting connection between Emma Lazarus and Henry David Thoreau.  It seems that Emma visited Ralph Waldo Emerson at his home in Concord, Massachusetts in 1876, and met the poet William Ellery Channing while visiting.  Channing was a close friend of Thoreau, and apparently never really got over the death of Thoreau 14 years prior to Lazarus’ visit to Concord.  He proved to be a tough nut to crack, but succumbed to Lazarus as he learned she was an admirer of Thoreau’s.  Channing gave her a personal tour of Thoreau’s Concord, from Walden Pond to the place he was born, and when she was leaving Concord he gave her an incredible gift; Thoreau’s compass.  I admit, that’s a breathtaking gift to me, the compass of Henry David Thoreau, the surveyor of lands and spiritual guide to generations.

Lazarus, like Thoreau, would live a short life, succumbing to what is believed to be lymphoma at the age of 38.  But like Thoreau she lives on in words of significance created during her short tenure on earth.  Her most famous poem is The New Colossus, which was written to raise funds for the base of the Statue of Liberty, and is forever associated with Lady Liberty.  I’ve read it many times, but find new meaning in it with each reading.

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.

When you absorb The New Colossus, you recognize the folly of Trump, the Tea Party and the undercurrent of white privilege that’s always been there but is recoiling under an uncomfortable spotlight.  The Founding Fathers might have been complicated in how they lived their own lives, but the ideas behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were bigger than their lives.  The century after would see a nation boiling inside, putting the words to the ultimate test again and again culminating in the Civil War and Reconstruction, the settlement of the continent and the sweeping aside of Native Americans, much of the wildlife and the very land itself.  Set against this was the rise of Transcendentalism, conservation and preservation.  And all the while the immigrants kept flooding in, fleeing desperation and seeking a new hope in America.  Lazarus represents the open arms of Lady Liberty and America, with no restriction in who might be welcomed when they arrive:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

I know people who despair at Trump and the rise of hatred in America.  I take no pleasure in the vile and ugly amongst us.  But I also take the long view, and recognize that American is shifting once again, and the undercurrent of hatred, racism and greed is unwelcome by the vast majority in this country.  I have faith in the process and believe we’ll come out of this year like no other better for having endured.  America is a land of hope, transcendentalism is founded on the belief in the inherent goodness of people.  Emma Lazarus corresponding with Ralph Waldo Emerson and eventually visiting him shows her own interest in his thoughts and opinions.  When I read The New Colossus I think of Thoreau’s compass that was handed to Lazarus by Channing and the direct link that created between them.  I wonder if she glanced at the compass while writing The New Colossus and found the right words to say.  Words that still show us the way forward, towards our true north as a country.

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