Katherine Lee Bates and “Grace”

Poet Katherine Lee Bates liked the word grace. A professor at Wellesley College in her native Massachusetts, she wrote “America the Beautiful” in Colorado in 1893 while on a lecture trip. According to the Library of Congress, Bates made some revisions over the years, but it was an instant hit, set to popular tunes, including the prevalent melody composed by church organist Samuel Ward.

All the versions of the poem wish God’s blessing upon the United States: “God shed His grace on thee.” Shed is such a striking verb. I think first of cat hair, but people shed tears, or blood, and books shed light on a subject. You can shed something no longer useful (like a snake shedding its size-too-small skin) or something precious and liquid (tears and blood) or something transformative (light). But God shedding His grace sounds like He (or She) has so much grace that he sheds it rather than bestows it. It’s a gesture both intimate and offhand.

In her poem “The Falmouth Bell,” grace appears again, only this time as a characteristic of a landscape. A physical grace. Here’s an excerpt courtesy of the LOC again:

Never was there lovelier town
Than our Falmouth by the sea.
Tender curves of sky look down
On her grace of knoll and lea. . . .

Just noticing.

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