In the summer of 1893, Katherine Lee Bates boarded a train that would take her from Boston across the country to Colorado. The sights along the way included Niagara Falls, Chicago, and off in the purple distance, the Rocky Mountains. On the summit of Pike's Peak, the words of a poem began to come to her. She said afterwards that they floated into her mind. The song seemed to write itself. Everything she had seen and experienced about this vast new country came out of her, this professor of English literature at Wellesley College for Women. This song was written too late to be in contention when the national anthem was being selected.
The song is best known for its expression of awe. Yet, it is also humble. God needs to mend the flaws of the nation, which requires self control. Puritans were not promoters of liberty, yet they performed that role. There is awe at the physical breadth of the country, but also admiration of those who love mercy more than life. This would be a hard anthem to live up to.
Although the music and the words seem like they were made for each other, in fact, they were not. The music was written 5 years earlier, as a new tune for a now largely forgotten hymn called, O Mother Dear, Jerusalem. The poem, America the Beautiful, inspired a number of musicians to write tunes for it. Still, this tune seems so perfect for these words, that it is hard to believe that they were not written for each other.
Pike's Peak, where Katherine Lee Bates wrote America the Beautiful
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, thy liberty in law.
O beautiful for heroes proved 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 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 thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.
O mother, dear, Jerusalem when shall I come to thee?
When shall my sorrows have an end? Thy joys when shall I see?
O happy harbor of God's saints, O sweet and pleasant soil!
In thee no sorrow can be found. No grief nor care nor toil.
No murky cloud o'ershadows thee, nor gloom nor darksome night;
But every soul shines as the sun: for God himself gives light.
O my sweet home, Jerusalem! Thy joys when shall I see?
The King that sitteth on they throne in his felicity?
Thy gardens and thy goodly walks continually are green,
Where grow such sweet and pleasant flowers as nowhere else are seen.
Right through thy streets, with pleasing sound, the living waters flow,
And on the banks on either side, the trees of life do grow.
Those trees each month yield ripened fruit; for ever more they spring,
And all the nations of the earth to thee their honours bring.
O mother dear, Jerusalem when shall I come to thee?
When shall my sorrows have an end thy joys when shall I see?