America the Beautiful - Analysis

Apparently Katharine Lee Bates took a trip to Pikes Peak in 1895 and was inspired by the view. The poem was revised over the years and the usually quoted words were final in 1913. It was made a song with music by Samuel Ward about 1910.

The form of each verse is a four line statement followed by a four line refrain expressing hopes. The first verse, as for the Star Spangled Banner, is effusive. The refrain hopes that God will shed his grace on America and unity amongst its peoples.

"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!"

The second verse extols the Westward migrations which carried the principle of individual liberty across the continent to the Pacific. She has no illusions about perfect implementation. Her refrain asks God's help to mend our flaws, and improve our self-control and rule of law - the two principle elements of Freedom.

"O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!"

The third verse praises the heroes that stand up for Liberty when tyranny threatens. The ancient reason that urged men to defend their country, fiefdom, or tribe was that defeat meant death for men and slavery for women and children. Defeat and slavery have been more benign at later times in history but generally less desirable than one's own culture and lifestyle. Americans fought because their country was the vehicle of their Freedom - pretty much unavailable elsewhere. Again she asks for our improvement, in particular that our successes be gained though noble actions. Note that noble actions are not selfless, they are the height of enlightened selfishness because Freedom, family, and just community are essentials.

"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!"

An earlier version of the third refrain hopes that the noble successes not be colored by subterfuges of undeserved personal gain, and is much clearer than the perhaps excessively poetic current version.

"Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!"

The last verse looks to the future with the patriotic goal that the future be brighter for all. The goal is not to eliminate all transitory unhappiness but rather that people have no substantive cause to lament their condition.

"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!"

An earlier version of the last refrain hopes again that Americans are improved. A "jubilee" is a significant anniversary. A "whiter jubilee" may mean a purer future celebration of our Revolution.

"Till nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!"