Katharine Lee Bates Biography

Poet, Scholar (1859–1929)
A professor and a poet, Katharine Lee Bates wrote the poem "America the Beautiful." Her poem became the lyrics to the popular American ballad still enjoyed today.


Born in Massachusetts in 1859, Katharine Lee Bates graduated from Wellesley College in 1880. After several years as a teacher, Bates returned to Wellesley College as an English instructor. She first published her most famous poem, "America the Beautiful," in 1893. After some revisions, her poem later became the lyrics to the patriotic ballad "America the Beautiful." She was also an accomplished academic and served as the head of Wellesley's English department for many years. She retired in 1925 and died in 1929.

Early Life

Born on August 12, 1859, in Falmouth, Massachetts, poet and educator Katharine Lee Bates is best known for writing the lyrics to the popular song "America the Beautiful." The lyrics for this beloved song came from a poem she wrote. She was one of four children born to a minister and a schoolteacher. Her father died shortly after she was born, and her mother did whatever she could to support the family. Around the age of 12, Bates and her family moved to what is now Wellesley Hills to live with her mother's sister.

Despite their financial woes, Bates's mother made education a priority. Bates attended Wellesley College, one of the few institutions of higher learning open to women at the time. There, she studied English and Greek, among other subjects. Bates also explored her interest in poetry and had one of her works published in the Atlantic Monthly. After graduating in 1880, Bates spent several years working as a teacher.

Educator, Editor and Author

In 1888, Bates joined the faculty of Wellesley College. She first was an English instructor and later became head of the college's English department. Over the years, Bates became known as a scholar of English literature, especially the works of William Shakespeare. She wrote several books, including The English Religious Drama in 1893.

That same year, Bates spent part of the summer in Colorado. She was there lecturing at Colorado College. During her visit, she went on a hike to Pikes Peak. The view from this mountaintop inspired her most famous poem. "It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind," she later said, according to the Library of Congress web page on "America the Beautiful."

In addition to her poetry and academic writing, Bates wrote of her travels abroad in such works as 1900's Spanish Highways and Byways and 1907's From Gretna Green to Land's End: A Literary Journey in England. She also served as an editor for numerous books and worked with her mother on some translations of Spanish tales. Bates even tried her hand at children's literature with 1923's Little Robin Stay-Behind, and Other Plays in Verse for Children.

America the Beautiful

Bates first published her poem "America the Beautiful" in an issue of The Congregationalist in 1895. Nearly a decade later, she revisited the work and made some changes to it. This version then appeared in an 1904 issue of The Boston Evening Transcript. Bates included the work in her 1911 collection America the Beautiful and Other Poems. Two years later, however, Bates made more revisions.

Capturing the nation's majestic beauty and spirit, the poem became hugely popular. Its transformation to becoming a song was a gradual process. Many simply sang the words in the tune of a folk song, such as "Auld Lang Syne." It later followed the melody of Samuel Augustus Ward's "Materna." A contest was held in 1926 to create new music to set the poem to, but no strong candidates prevailed. Instead "Materna" became the standard melody still used today.

Final Years

While she is largely remembered for "America the Beautiful," Bates only published a handful of poetry collections in her lifetime. Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance, one of her most recognized collections today, was actually published privately in 1922. Bates wrote this set of sonnets to honor her love Katharine Coman. She and Coman, both been professors at Wellesley, lived together for roughly 25 years. Bates was heartbroken over Coman's death in 1915.

Bates retired from Wellesley in 1925. The following year, she published her final collection of poems in The Pilgrim Ship.

Katharine Lee Bates died on March 28, 1929, in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Shortly after her death, there was an effort made to establish "America the Beautiful" as the nation's anthem. The song, however, lost out to "The Star-Spangled Banner." Still, Bates's moving lyrics hold a special place in the hearts of many Americans. Over the years, the song has been recorded by such artists as Ray Charles, Blake Shelton and Frank Sinatra.

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