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O beautiful..., pursuing excellence, by William Safire

Returning in 1894 from an inspiring trip to Pikes Peak in Colorado, a minor New England poet named Katharine Lee Bates wrote a verse she titled ''America.'' It was printed the following year in a church publication in Boston to commemorate the Fourth of July.

Lynn Sherr, the ABC News correspondent, has written a timely and deliciously researched book about how that verse was written and edited and how it was fitted to a hymn called ''Materna,'' written about the same time by Samuel Augustus Ward, whom the poet never met. In ''America the Beautiful: The Stirring True Story Behind Our Nation's Favorite Song'' (Public Affairs, $25), Sherr reveals the rewriting by Bates that shows the value of working over a lyric.

''O beautiful for halcyon skies,'' the poem began. Halcyon is a beautiful word, based on the Greek name for the bird, probably a kingfisher, that ancient legend had nesting in the sea during the winter solstice and calming the waves. It means ''calm, peaceful'' and all those happy things, but the word is unfamiliar and does not evoke the West. Spacious, however, not only describes Big Sky country but also alliterates with skies, so she changed it.

The often-unsung third stanza contained a zinger at the acquisition of wealth: ''America! America!/God shed his grace on thee/Till selfish gain no longer stain/The banner of the free!'' Sherr writes that Bates, disillusioned with the Gilded Age's excesses, ''wanted to purify America's great wealth, to channel what she had originally called 'selfish gain' into more noble causes.'' The poet took another crack at the line that der-ogated the profit motive, and the stanza now goes: ''America! America!/May God thy gold refine/Till all success be nobleness/And every gain divine!''

The line that needed editing the most was the flat and dispiriting conclusion: ''God shed his grace on thee/Till nobler men keep once again/Thy whiter jubilee!'' That cast an aspersion on the current generation, including whoever was singing the lyric. The wish for ''nobler men'' to come in the future ended the song, about to be set to Ward's hymn, on a self-deprecating note.

In 1904, 10 years after her first draft, Katharine Lee Bates revised the imperfect last lines of the final stanza. The new image called up at the end not only reminds the singers of the ''spacious skies'' that began the song but also elevates the final theme to one of unity and tolerance. Her improvement makes all the difference, especially in times like these:

America! America! God shed his grace on thee And crown thy good with brotherhood From sea to shining sea!

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

October 21, 2001, Sunday Late Edition - Final Section: 6 Page: 30 Column: 3 Desk: Magazine Desk Length: 1025 words

The Way We Live Now: 10-21-01: On Language; Asymmetry By William Safire

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