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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Patriotic lyricist wrote of cancer's torment, the anguish of love lost


Last week I came across an article announcing that the handwritten score of an alternative version of “America the Beautiful” was up for sale by a Cape Cod auction house. It was in 1893 that Falmouth, MA native Katharine Lee Bates wrote a poem that would become that beloved patriotic melody. Today, you can’t go too far in the seaside town without running across some kind of monument to Bates, such as the street sign that bears her name or the statue of her likeness on the public library lawn.

Before reading that article, I knew Bates was a lyricist. But I didn’t know she was an accomplished academic – a respected professor and esteemed author. Nor did I know that the poems she wrote in the wake of her partner's death from breast cancer would be such powerful examples of how words truly can convey profound loss. I also learned that those poems, such as "If You Could Come" , are today viewed by scholars as examples of some of the earliest American breast cancer narratives.

If You Could Come 
If You Could Come
My love, my love, if you could come once more
From your high place,
I would not question you for heavenly lore,
But, silent, take the comfort of your face.

I would not ask you if those golden spheres
In love rejoice,
If only our stained star hath sin and tears,
But fill my famished hearing with your voice.

One touch of you were worth a thousand creeds.
My wound is numb
Through toil-pressed, but all night long it bleeds
In aching dreams, and still you cannot come.

That poem is found in the collection Yellow Clover; A Book of Remembrance, published by Bates in 1922. That volume is dedicated to Katharine Coman, an economist, social reformer, fellow Wellesley professor and Bates’ partner of 25 years.

The photo of Bates, at left, comes from Wellesley College. The photo of Coman, at right, comes from the digitized copy of Yellow Clover, available at the Internet Archive.

Additional information about Bates can be found at The Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Falmouth Historical Society.

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