A Dangerously Beautiful Phenomenon

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.


Works Cited
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,

4 thoughts on “A Dangerously Beautiful Phenomenon

  1. I too agree that within this piece, Lazarus is indeed toying with perspective here. I also agree with your interpretation that Lazarus intended to use lighting of the torch to symbolize the strength of the immigrants voyaging here to America in search of hope and opportunity.

    Originally, The New Colossus was represented as a huge signifier of hope and acceptance of the immigrant population here in the U.S. The Statue of Liberty in New York, NY was sculpted with the intention of representing the independence and endless opportunities in America – hence symbolizing the ‘American Dream’: the ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative. The Statue of Liberty was intended to be a visual, symbolic for those immigrating to the U.S, seeking better opportunities.

    However, with today’s recontextualization of Lazarus’ piece, I am skeptical of her intended meaning of the torch and its ‘imprisoned’ light. With newly implemented Immigration Laws, it is clear that all are not welcomed here in America to access these opportunities. As of now, I am just confused as to whether or not it is indeed a house to protect one’s power and ability or is it imprisoned in the literal sense of having actual boundaries and limitations?

  2. Really enjoyed your post!

    I thought it was interesting that you saw the lightening and torch as a “unmentioned comparison… to symbolize a combination of immigrants themselves, their journey to America, and the promise of new life they will discover” (3 par). When I first read the poem, I thought of the torch and the imprisoned lightening as one entity of immigrants. I originally thought of Lady Liberty, or the “Mother of Exiles” as Lazarus calls her as the symbol for home for immigrants, not the torch. Your post caught my attention because it delved a layer deeper than my initial reading. Rather than just a woman with a torch it is a woman with a torch with a flame. The third layer of the poem I think has to do solely with the time this poem was written. At the time “The New Colossus” was written was around the time of the signing of the Chinese Immigration Act, the division of the African continent shortly after as well as Industrialization happening in America at the time. These events created a sense of national competition and pressure to improve as a country. This sense of progress yet impending nationalism lead up to World War One. The fact that America was welcoming of a flame or immigrants but still hyper aware of the containment and the control over them exemplifies the want to progress but extreme fear of inferiority. Lazarus was able to accurately convey the subtlety of nationalism throughout America. This leads me to your question of ” why would the term “imprison” be utilized at all” (2 par). The word imprisoned speaks to the subtle but extremely prominent nationalism fueled by fear.

  3. I love the point you make that lightning is simultaneously dangerous and beautiful. You compare the “imprisoned lightning” to the immigrants, their voyages to America, and their American dream. This comparison is so fascinating because all three groups (the immigrants, their voyages and their dreams) are all powerful, but can be imprisoned or prevented from liberty when there is prejudice, or unexpected hardship. I think the idea that the immigrants themselves are the “imprisoned lightning: could speak to the power and unique experiences they bring that can benefit and contribute to America. In the sense that lightning is dangerous, I think this comparison could challenge Nativist fears.

    The idea that the immigrants are the flames and America is the torch is perfect. It connects directly to the initial freedom to practice religion that encouraged the Puritans to make early settlements in America. Those Puritans had dreams and ideas of how they wanted to live their lives. They could be the flames too. To that extent, America was their torch because it gave them the candle wick, the ability and opportunity to pursue their dreams and live their lives to their own pleasure. The same could be applied to modern day immigrants who come to America in search of opportunity or freedom.

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