America the Beautiful: Lyrics & Meaning

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  • 0:03 America the Beautiful
  • 1:49 Meaning of the Words
  • 4:22 Print & Musical Versions
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

'Oh beautiful for spacious skies. . .' goes the beginning of a song. Of course you know it, right? But do you know the story behind it? In this video, we'll explore the words of the song 'America the Beautiful.'

America the Beautiful

In 1893, Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929), a 33-year-old English professor, traveled from Massachusetts by train to teach a summer class in Colorado Springs, Colorado. For a young single woman in Victorian America, this was quite the adventure; one that allowed her to see a variety of scenic locations as she traveled west.

Later that summer, to celebrate the conclusion of the class, Bates and several friends traveled to the top of Pikes Peak, a mountain overlooking Colorado Springs. Getting up the peak required riding in a prairie wagon and then making the last part of the trip by mule. When she finally got to the top, Bates looked out over the landscape and was struck by the awe-inspiring vista below her. As a result, she penned the words to a poem:

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

Bates was recording in words what she had seen and felt on top of the mountain. Thus, the song we know as 'America the Beautiful' began life as a poem.

Meaning of the Words

In four verses, Bates' poem 'America the Beautiful' celebrated the country's natural beauty with definite religious overtones. You'll see modern versions of the song in hymnals with many more lyrics. However, the original poem had four verses. Throughout the poem, Bates connects America's glory and success to God and asks for continuing help in the times to come. She also requests divine assistance in preserving liberty and governing, asserting that it is God rather than human frailty that provides for lasting presence. For example, in the second verse is the phrase 'God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control,' in which Bates suggests that God's guidance is needed to make principled decisions about running the country.

Each verse in 'America the Beautiful' encapsulates an idea. The first verse is about the stunning landscape that Bates had seen atop Pikes Peak, the beauty of which results in recognizing God's role in allowing us to see such sights, because 'God shed his grace on thee.'

The second, which begins with, 'O beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress,' recollects the landing of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, where Bates lived, the settling of America by Europeans, and expanding of the western frontier. In the process, it connects the fact that the country stretches from 'sea to shining sea' to God's role in human life.

The third verse expresses thanks to those who kept America a free land through military service: 'O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife. Who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life!'

The fourth verse harkens toward the future, 'O Beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years,' while also repeating the same acknowledgement that future progress is only possible because 'God shed his grace on thee.' It's God that will allow the freedom in our country to continue into the unknowable future.

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