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Katharine Lee Bates

America the Beautiful

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1893

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Summary and Study Guide


“America the Beautiful” (1895) is a patriotic song by Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929). Bates wrote the song like a church hymn, and it combines elements of Christian imagery with celebratory invocations of American exceptionalism. The song is often paired with the “Star-Spangled Banner” in celebrations of America, including on July 4th and before large public gatherings. The song’s main message is a celebration of the natural and spiritual beauty of America. Bates invokes God’s protection of the land and connects the country’s history to its future. In this way, the song is different than the national anthem because it does not simply reflect upon mythologized history; instead, the song is more of a prayer for the soul of America, asking God to keep the country’s soul as beautiful as its land. While the song is almost universally known in America, its history, lyrics, and meaning are not as ubiquitous as the national anthem. Regardless, the song remains a popular aspect of American patriotic symbolism, and it is Bates’s most popular work.

Poet Biography

Katharine Lee Bates was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, on August 12, 1859. Bates was born into an educated and religious household, though her father died when she was just a baby. Unique for her time, Bates received an excellent education from the time she was a child, and she eventually graduated from Wellesley College in 1880.

After college, Bates began her teaching and writing career, becoming a secondary school teacher for the next few years and writing her first popular book, Rose and Thorn (1889), which won her enough money to travel to Europe to further her education. When she returned to America in 1891, she earned her M.A. and became an English professor at Wellesley, where she would work until 1925.

Though Bates is primarily known for writing “America the Beautiful” (which she wrote while teaching at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1893), her life’s work was in the realm of social reform and education, as she was a fierce advocate for African Americans, poor people, women, and immigrants. In fact, Bates’s work with the disenfranchised and her own experiences with prejudice were major influences for “America the Beautiful."

Another notable aspect of Bates’s life was her relationship with longtime friend Katharine Coman. While Bates never married (presumably because doing so would have resulted in her losing her job at the college) many people have long speculated that Bates and Coman had a secret romantic relationship, though there is no concrete evidence to prove this.

Bates died in Massachusetts on March 28, 1929.

Poem Text

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 impassion'd stress

A thoroughfare for freedom beat

Across the wilderness.

America! America!

God mend thine ev'ry flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law.

O beautiful for heroes prov'd

In liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved,

And mercy more than life.

America! America!

May God thy gold refine

Till all success be nobleness,

And ev'ry 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 thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea.

Bates, Katherine Lee. “America the Beautiful.” 1895. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.


“America the Beautiful” opens with a declaration of beauty as the speaker exclaims their appreciation for the skies, grasses, and mountains of the country. They describes an open skyline, the vast wheatfields of the Midwest, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and they conclude the first verse by calling the land beyond the mountain a “fruited plain” (Line 4), meaning plentiful.

While the song does not have a repeated chorus, the second verse establishes the structure of a chorus that will be repeated throughout the poem, making it more of a refrain. In this verse, the speaker cries out to America with two exclamations, and they ask for God to watch over the country while also asking America itself to come together in brotherhood. The speaker concludes the verse with the famous line “From sea to shining sea!” (Line 8), meaning the entire country from Atlantic to Pacific.

The third verse invokes the history of America, recalling the founding of the country by the pilgrims. The speaker describes the pilgrims’ original motives for coming to America and their trekking across the large country as the building of a road to freedom.

The next verse returns to the chorus structure, and here the speaker returns from the past to the present. They ask God to fix the flaws of the country, and they ask the country to enshrine its values and freedoms in self-control, meaning law. The speaker says that law is liberty.

The next verse honors those who died to give America its freedom. The speaker honors the selflessness of those who loved their country and fought for it, and they say those people honored mercy, an American value, over their own lives.

The next verse returns to the chorus structure and again calls upon God to lend His helping hand to America by amplifying its riches and cloaking all its profits in divine love.

The penultimate verse looks to the future by invoking a great white city that shines and is not diminished by suffering. The speaker calls this a beautiful patriot dream that will outlast time itself.

The final verse repeats the first chorus, ending with the famous line “From sea to shining sea!”