While Emma Lazarus offered a vision of the Statue of Liberty welcoming the tired, hungry, and poor to the United States, not everyone celebrated her vision of the country as a refugee for the persecuted people’s of the world. Among those who were troubled by the rise of immigrants coming to the United Staes at the end of the 19th century was the poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich. Aldrich is generally remembered as a writer and editor of the influential Atlantic Monthly. He was well connected and well known. He published his poem, The Unguarded Gates in 1892, ten years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act,  the year after Congress passed a law creating a federal department coordinating immigration enforcement, and the year that the Ellis Island Immigration Station opened in New York Harbor.

Below is an excerpt of the poem:

Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,
And through them presses a wild motley throng—
Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes,
Featureless figures of the Hoang-Ho,
Malayan, Scythian, Teuton, Kelt, and Slav,
Flying the Old World’s poverty and scorn;
These bringing with them unknown gods and rites,—
Those, tiger passions, here to stretch their claws.
In street and alley what strange tongues are loud,
Accents of menace alien to our air,
Voices that once the Tower of Babel knew!

O Liberty, white Goddess! is it well
To leave the gates unguarded? On thy breast
Fold Sorrow’s children, soothe the hurts of fate,
Lift the down-trodden, but with hand of steel
Stay those who to thy sacred portals come
To waste the gifts of freedom. Have a care
Lest from thy brow the clustered stars be torn
And trampled in the dust. For so of old
The thronging Goth and Vandal trampled Rome,
And where the temples of the Cæsars stood
The lean wolf unmolested made her lair.

Reflection Questions

  1. There are many ethnic and geographic images in the poem, don’t get lost in them. Instead, focus on the words and images he associates with the people and the places he mentions. What words does he use to describe the immigrants that enter through the “wide open” and “unguarded gates”?
  2. What words and images does he use to describe what they are bringing with them?
  3. The second stanza begins with a question. In your own words, what is he asking?
  4. If you were the put the message of the poem in your own words, what is he saying?
  5. Compare his vision to the one offered by Emma Lazarus in the New Colossus. Which do you find more appealing? Which do you find more consistent with your values?

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