Katharine Lee Bates, Poet of 'America the Beautiful'

By Clara Silverstein
Jan. 23, 2018

Newton High School Yearbook - 1876

Newton High School Yearbook - 1876

Many Americans learn the song, “America the Beautiful,” in elementary school but may not know that its author, Katharine Lee Bates, was an English literature professor at Wellesley College. Born in Falmouth in 1859, Bates began writing poetry as a teenager and was chosen class-day poet at Newton High School, which she attended from 1874-1876. By the time she graduated from Wellesley College in 1880, she had published a poem in The Atlantic Monthly

To supplement what she called a “small college salary,” Bates published her writing. Her approximately 30 books include poetry as well as literary analysis, travelogues, novels and poetry for children, and a memoir about Sigurd, her pet collie. In 1899, as the Spanish-American war was ending, Bates traveled to Spain to report on the aftermath of the conflict, and the strain it had left on Spanish society. Her series of articles for The New York Times led to a publishing deal for the book Spanish Highways and Byways (1900).

Bates drafted the first few stanzas of her famous poem after traveling to the top of Pikes Peak in Colorado in 1893, simply titling it “America.” Like any good writer, she revised her signature poem, “America the Beautiful,” many times until she created the version that we know today. Here are excerpts from the first draft:

 O beautiful for halcyon skies, for amber waves of grain

For purple mountain majesties above the enameled plain

America! America! God shed his grace on thee

Till souls wax fair as earth and air and music-hearted sea!

The poem inspired many composers to set its words to music. The melody from Samuel Ward and the revised version of the poem that we now know came together by 1905 – destined to become a classic American patriotic anthem.

When a battalion of American soldiers in the “Yankee” Division stationed in Verdun, France heard the news of the armistice that ended World War I on November 11, 1918, they spontaneously staggered into formation and sang “America the Beautiful.”

Bates lived in a home near the Wellesley College campus. She taught and also mentored other writers, including a then-unknown Robert Frost. After courtships by two male suitors, she found lasting companionship with Katharine Coman, a Wellesley College faculty colleague. After Coman’s death in 1915, Bates published a collection of elegiac poetry dedicated to her. Bates retired in 1925 and died in 1929, leaving behind an impressive body of work. She chose this epigraph (which she wrote) for her Autobiography in Brief:

            The spirit weaveth wings

                        From earth’s few, fragile years

            For what far journeyings

                        Beyond what flaming spheres!

 

Clara Silverstein is author of five published books, most recently the historical novel Secrets in a House Divided (Mercer University Press). A journalist in Boston for many years, she is now the Community Engagement Manager at Historic Newton. Learn more at www.clarasilverstein.com.


Interested in discovering more about Katharine Lee Bates? The Newton Free Library will be hosting an event on Thursday, January 31 at 7:00pm featuring Melinda M. Ponder, author of Katharine Lee Bates: From Sea to Shining Sea. Find more information here.
 


Works Consulted:

Bates, Katharine Lee, An Autobiography in Brief of Katharine Lee Bates. Privately printed, 1930.

Cohen, Arlene. “A Legacy of Wisdom and Song.” Wellesley Magazine, Fall 2017.

Ponder, Melinda M. Katharine Lee Bates: From Sea to Shining Sea. Windy City Publishers, 2017.