Rita Dove, "Lady Freedom Among Us" (1993)

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As preparations rolled for the 200th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol, Thomas Crawford's Lady Freedom was brought down for a make-over: After two centuries of standing atop of the Capitol dome, exposed to weather and pollution, she needed major repairs. Months before she was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States in 1993, Rita Dove read about Lady Freedom's temporary removal in the newspapers: "I thought it was a marvelous irony and jotted down a few lines in my notebook" ("In Honor," 2). Months later, and still remembering those first few jots, Dove found herself writing about Lady Freedom for the Capitol's bicentennial occasion.

Through the course of her reparations, Lady Freedom was stationed in a parking lot--a humbling change from her lofty perch--near to Dove's Library of Congress office. For a few short months, Dove had the rare opportunity to take at look at Crawford's rendition of lady liberty up close. Her scrutiny and sharp perception grew into a poem about Lady Freedom's layered meanings: "I wanted to convey some sense of the beleaguered status of freedom," says Dove,

how in our country, and as represented in the District of Columbia, you can see the contrasts abutted right up against one another: poetry and pomp, government and the disenfranchised, lofty ideals and complex reality. ("In Honor," 2)

The resulting poem, "Lady Freedom Among Us," captures those paradoxes: it both exposes and glorifies. A poem tethered to the attitudes of the contemporary age, "Lady Freedom" cuts through old gloss and realizes that Americans today easily dismiss Lady Freedom as "another item to fit on a tourist's agenda" (l. 18). In the rapid pace of the city, as we "lower [our] eyes/or stare straight ahead to where [we] think [we] ought to be going," as we pass the homeless on the streets and as we walk stiff and wordless, we miss Freedom altogether (ll. 2-3). Maybe we no longer understand why she is up there: an odd, forgotten pinnacle to a capitol we rarely care to exalt.

Dove's poem, however, halts us in that very thought:

     don't think you can ever forget her
     don't even try
     she's not going to budge (ll. 22-23)
"Lady Freedom Among Us" calls for a reevaluation of what this female emblem really means to the people of America. "[B]ig boned resolute," Crawford's Freedom has endured a century of change. She has "assumed the thick skin of this town/its gritted exhaust its sunscorch and blear," and she demands that we do the same. As Dove herself explains:
... she was not just Lady Freedom but also the troubling conscience standing on the street corner demanding that we take a look, that we consider each of us as individuals. We should not forget her lessons--even if the dream of America is tarnished or eaten away by corrosion or in need of cleaning and repair, it is not defunct. ("In Honor," 2)