Hymnspiration: America the Beautiful (Part 1)

AmericaTheBeautifulToday’s hymn was once believed to be the logical choice to become America’s new national anthem.  Its words, penned in 1893, were set to various music scores over the years, including Auld Lang Syne.  However, not until the words were joined with a tune which had been composed eleven years before the poem was written did the song rise to become one of the most heart-stirring American patriotic hymns.

KatharineBatesKatharine Lee Bates was born on August 12, 1859 in Falmouth, Massachusetts to parents William and Cornelia (Lee) Bates.  Her father, a Congregational minister, passed away on September 10, 1859.  Cornelia was forced to take odd jobs to support herself and four children.  Even with a reduced income her children were educated (she herself had graduated from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary).

Katharine often referred to herself as “a shy, nearsighted child, always hiding away with a book.”  At the age of six she began a life-long habit of keeping a diary.  In 1871 the family moved to Grantham, Massachusetts to be near her mother’s sister.  There she finished her schooling and in 1876 enrolled in the newly founded Wellesley College for Women.  At that time in history, the concept of women pursuing higher education seemed foolish to many.  One Boston physician remarked that a “woman’s brain was too delicate and fragile a thing to attempt the mastery of Greek and Latin.”

Along with diligently pursuing an education, Katharine began her career as a writer.  One poem was published by The Atlantic Monthly and drew praise from none other than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  After graduation in 1880, Katharine taught at a nearby high school and then a preparatory school before being invited in 1885 to join the faculty at Wellesley as an English professor.

From 1890-1891 she studied at Oxford for an advanced degree in English literature.  Thereafter she traveled extensively abroad – back to England several times, France, Spain, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Egypt, Syria and Italy – but was always glad to return home to the “Land of Hope.”  In the summer of 1893 she made plans for a tour of America.

Her first stop was Niagara Falls, whereupon seeing them for the first time, she wrote a short poem:

Passion of plunging waters . . .
Columnar mist and glistening rainbow play;
A splendid thrill of glory and of peril.

On July 1, 1893 she reached Chicago and visited the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair.  The official name reflected the purpose of the fair – the celebration, albeit it one year late, of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World.  And what a dazzling spectacle it was!

One building “illuminated” the power of electricity while one was dedicated to the steam engine.  Also on display was the first sliding fastener, later called a zipper.  New food and novelty items were also introduced: Shredded Wheat, Cracker Jacks and Juicy Fruit chewing gum.  Some displays were of a bizarre nature: a Liberty Bell made of oranges, the Statue of Liberty made of salt and a map of the United States made from pickles!

The centerpiece of the fair was the model city of the future, called the “White City,” and consisting of fourteen buildings finished with a bright white exterior and resembling marble.  Katharine made a note in her diary: “All men were poets for one brief, white space In the White City.”  Perhaps this would later be the basis for one line of her poem about America: “thine alabaster cities gleam.”

On the afternoon of July 3, Katharine boarded a train with Katharine Coman, her close friend and companion who also taught at Wellesley.  They were headed to Colorado Springs to teach a summer course at Colorado College.  While traveling on July 4, Katharine Bates would have seen field after field of Kansas wheat, no doubt inspiration for another line of poetry:  “amber waves of grain.”  She later remarked that those scenes gave her a “quickened and deepened sense of America.”

The two women reached Colorado Springs on July 5 and surely the towering Rocky Mountains must have made an impression on the New Englander, referring to them as the “purple range of the Rockies.”  The president of Colorado College had assembled a visiting faculty that summer of east coast professors to broaden his students’ horizons.  In their free time the professors toured the surrounding area, one night visiting the Garden of the Gods and hearing the howling of a coyote.

One afternoon they went to Cripple Creek and near the end of the summer session they traveled to the top of Pike’s Peak.  On July 22 the group rode in a horse-drawn wagon (the cog railway wasn’t operating that day).  On the side of the wagon was the slogan made famous over the years since the mountain’s discovery by Lieutenant Zebulon Pike – “Pike’s Peak or Bust!”  The ride up the mountain was a rough one and at the halfway point the horses were switched for mules.

As they drew near the summit at a height of almost three miles above sea level, two people became ill and fainted.  The brief panoramic view that Katharine Bates took in made a deep impression.  That night she wrote in her diary: “Most glorious scenery I ever beheld.”  She then opened her notebook and began to write the first verses:  “O beautiful for . . . “  She would later record and recollect repeatedly over the years, “the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind.”

Katharine set aside the poem and ten days later the two women departed, stopping in Denver for one night and then spending almost a week in Chicago before returning to Wellesley.  By the time she reached her home and unpacked, the poem hadn’t received any additional attention for almost a month.  On August 15 she must have at least glanced at it for she wrote in her diary: “Consider my verses.  Disheartening.”  The poem would not be made public for another two years.

Disheartened or not, she must have given some attention to it in the ensuing months and it’s believed she asked a friend to help her find a place to publish the poem.  In 1894 The Congregationalist, a weekly Boston church publication, wanted to publish the poem for its Independence Day edition.  Katharine, however, wrote and asked that she might make some changes before publication.  On July 4, 1895 the poem was published and received wide-spread acclaim, although it did not contain the words we know today (they would later be revised).  For instance, the first stanza read:

O beautiful for halcyon skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the enameled plain!

The first composer to attempt to set the poem to music was Silas G. Pratt, who had led a 75,000 voice choir on July 4, 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair.  He was the first of many over the next several years attempting to find just the right tune to accompany Katharine’s poem.  Katharine was amazed at the response, that people would want to sing her poem.  She realized that it needed to be a bit more musical so the “halcyon skies” became “spacious skies” and the “enameled plain” became “fruited plain.”  On November 19, 1904, the Boston Evening Transcript published the revision, touting it as a new “national hymn.”

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

America!  America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood,
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!

America!  America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self control,
The liberty in law!

O beautiful for glory tale
Of liberating strife,
When valiantly, for man’s avail,
Men lavished precious life.

America!  America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!

America!  America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown they good with brotherhood,
From sea to shining sea!

With the re-publication came a call from Clarence A. Barbour, a Baptist pastor, to utilize the song as a hymn.  He and his wife searched through their church’s hymnal to find a tune that would match the poem’s rhythm the best.  They finally settled on Materna which had been composed in 1882 by Samuel Augustus Ward.  While historians don’t know whether Dr. Barbour was the first to link Materna with the poem, it’s certainly possible his congregation may have been among the first to sing Katharine Bate’s poem to the tune.

Next Sunday I’ll conclude the history of America the Beautiful with Samuel Augustus Ward’s story, the final versions of the hymn, its translation into other languages, the search for a new national anthem, and more about Katharine Bates’ life and work.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.



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