Though Lazarus wrote many poems beginning as a teenager, as well as prose and even drama, before her death at age 38, she is best known for a single sonnet. It was written in 1883 and donated to be sold to raise money for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. She believed that the Statue would serve as an important greeting and a symbol for incoming immigrants, and likely had that in mind when she wrote "The New Colossus," referencing the ancient Greek Colossus of Rhodes. It was read at the fundraising exhibition, but was mostly forgotten until after Lazarus's death. By 1903, a plaque quoting Lazarus's poem was added to the pedestal. Her words remain a reminder of a certain idealism in emigration to the United States:
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!"