A critical rule instructed to children who are learning to swim is to never go in a pool when you can see lightning or hear thunder. This is often coupled with an order to not stand under a tree either. Why? Because typically lightning is responsible for around 49 deaths annually (Lam). Lightning is powerful, dangerous, charged, aweing, beautiful, deadly. So, why would a phenomenon that can inflict such damage and signify the onset of a storm be used in a literary context that seemingly signifies the opposite?
That context in reference happens to be the words of Emma Lazarus in her poem “The New Colossus” transcribed on the Statue of Liberty. Throughout history, the U.S. stood as a sign of hope for millions of immigrants who wished to build a better life. Through her writing, Lazarus paints Lady Liberty as a symbol of that hope, but also as “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning . . .” (4-5), an almost perplexing oxymoron, if you will. Yet, if America and the Statue offer a chance to begin again, why would the term “imprison” be utilized at all, even if it is in reference to this threatening energy? Some may argue we want to control this powerful lightning if a side-effect is the fear it inflicts in so many people, if lightning was only seen as a catastrophic event.
In this instance, Lazarus is relying on the people’s belief that in being so mighty, in having the potential to harm, lightning is magnificent, it lights up the darkness. She is using an unmentioned comparison: the lightning and torch to symbolize a combination of immigrants themselves, their journey to America, and the promise of new life they will discover. Lightning can be both disastrous and dazzling, similar to how the trip across the Atlantic can be devastating, despite an ultimate goal of an improved life.
Ultimately, if we can capture the lightning, the associated negative connotations, we can transform them into something beautiful, imagining them as signs of strength. The imprisonment of the lightning in the torch can serve as a housing for the flame. The people coming to America are the flames, beaming with bright light. This country is the torch, their home, their starting foundation. Lazarus is toying with perspective here, allowing her audience to reimagine their view of earthly marvels and fresh starts.
Lam, Linda. “Lightning Deaths the Last 10 Years, Mapped.” The Weather Channel,
22 July 2015,
Lazarus, Emma. “The New Colossus.” National Park Service, U. S. Department of the Interior,