A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

America the Subjunctive

America the Beautiful has interesting linguistic properties. In particular, it uses verbs in the subjunctive mood, which is quite unusual in modern English, except in fixed expressions (such as “God forbid.”). The subjunctive is usually used to describe a condition that doesn’t exist, or a condition that one wishes to exist, such as “if I were a rich man.”

The interesting thing about the subjunctive in English is that it often indistinguishable from the simple past tense or a request/command form. In “http://www.powerset.com/explore/go/God-bless-America,” you can tell it’s not the past tense (that would be “God blessed America, of course), but it’s a bit ambiguous about the command: does it mean “May God bless America” (the subjunctive) or “God, (please) bless America!” (the command form). From the context, it’s clearly addressed to God directly: before the chorus, Berlin’s lyrics say, ‘we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.”

America the Beautiful” is not addressed to God; God is explicitly in the third person:

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.

Does it mean that God has shed grace on America, or is a hope that God may shed grace on America? Only by looking at the second line can we tell: “And crown thy good…”. If it were the past tense, it would be “And crowned thy good…”, but it’s in the bare form, and so must be the subjunctive.

Interestingly, the second verse changes into the past tense (a verse rarely sung):

O beautiful, for pilgrim feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!

In theory, this is ambiguous: it could mean “May pilgrim feet beat across the wilderness,” but it’s clear that when Katharine Lee Bates wrote “America the Beautiful” in the 1890’s, she wasn’t hoping for a new pilgrim exodus across the continent, but was expressing a manifest destiny already fulfilled. The second chorus returns to the subjunctive, though–it’s not “mended” and “confirmed,” but “mend” and “confirm:”

America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw;
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law!

The second is somewhat similar (gratitude for “heroes proved in liberating strife” and a subjunctive hope in the chorus that “God thy gold refine, ’til all success be nobleness”–two subjunctives in a row there!

The last verse has always confused me. How could anyone in the 1890’s thing that:

Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!

But in context, it’s a subjunctive-like dream:

O beautiful, for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years,
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!

In other words, patriots dream of a future where American cites gleam and are without tears.

Well, may God bless America, may God mend its every flaw, and continue to shed us with grace. And may our cities be clean and full of justice, and a sense of unity grow among all its people–from sea to shining sea.

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