How would you compare and contrast the two poems "America" by Claude McKay and "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus? What are these poems’ views of the American experience? What similarities exist...

How would you compare and contrast the two poems "America" by Claude McKay and "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus? What are these poems’ views of the American experience? What similarities exist between the poems? How do the narrators’ perspectives differ? What literary elements do the authors use to assist in conveying their particular perspective?

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jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus" and Claude McKay's "America" both speak about the promise of America, but McKay has a cynical view of what America can offer him, while Lazarus is idealistic about America's promise. 

Lazarus's poem, which she wrote in 1883 to raise funds to construct the Statue of Liberty, uses the symbol of Lady Liberty to stand for American values of freedom. She contrasts the Statue of Liberty with the Colossus at Rhodes, an ancient statue that stood for conquest. Unlike the Colossus, the Statue of Liberty stands at our "sunset gates," a reference to the Western world, as the "Mother of Exiles." Lazarus also personifies Liberty, stating,

From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

Liberty is not merely a statue but a powerful force who sends out messages of welcome across the world and commands the harbor between Brooklyn and Manhattan (which were then "twin cities"). In the second stanza, Lady Liberty calls for the world to send her "Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Liberty, a symbol of American freedom, in contrast to the Old World (what Lazarus refers to as "ancient lands"), welcomes the poor and oppressed of the world with open arms.

McKay's poem, like Lazarus's poem, personifies the United States as a woman; however, his America, unlike Lazarus's, is the type of cruel person who "feeds me bread of bitterness." She, unlike the fair and welcoming Lady Liberty of Lazarus's poem, has a "tiger's tooth" and takes away "my breath of life." Although he describes the United States as "hell," McKay says he loves the United States, just like Lazarus. McKay praises the country's energy in a series of similes, such as "her vigor flows like tides into my blood" and "her bigness sweeps my being like a flood." In these similes, he compares American energy to tides and her size to a flood. He then compares himself, in a simile, to a rebel who stands before a king without any trace of ill will. Then, in an extended metaphor (and a simile in the last line), McKay compares the United States's greatness to marble statues who sink into the sands of time. While he acknowledges the United States's greatness, McKay ends his poem on a troubling note, as he questions what America's future will hold. Lazarus, on the other hand, presents a view that is hopeful about the future of the United States.