Coates was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as the granddaughter of noted abolitionist and philanthropist Thomas Earle, and American Revolutionary War officer Samuel Van Leer, and the eldest daughter of Philadelphia lawyer George Hussey Earle Sr. and Mrs. Frances (“Fanny”) Van Leer Earle. She gained fame both at home and abroad for her works of poetry—nearly three-hundred of which were published in literary magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly, Scribner’s Magazine, The Literary Digest, Lippincott’s, The Century Magazine, and Harper’s. Many of her poems were set to music by composers such as Amy Beach (Amy Cheney Beach), Clayton Johns, and Charles Gilbert Spross. She attended school in New England under the instruction of abolitionist and teacher Theodore Dwight Weld, and would further her education abroad at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Paris (Rue de Varenne), and by studying music in Brussels under noted instructors of the day.Coates, pre-1894Tulip-tree
“My remembrance of our last visit and of your tulip-trees and maples I shall never lose …” —Matthew Arnold, in a letter to Coates
Literary and social critic Matthew Arnold both encouraged and inspired Coates’s writing of poetry. He was a guest at the Coates’ Germantown home when his lecture tours brought him to Philadelphia. Coates and Arnold first met in New York—during Arnold’s first visit and lecture tour of America—at the home of Andrew Carnegie, “where they formed a lasting friendship”. The tour (which lasted from October 1883 to March 1884) brought Arnold to Philadelphia in December 1883, where he lectured at Association Hall on the topics of the “Doctrine of the Remnant” and on “Emerson”. His second visit and tour of America took place in 1886, and brought him to Philadelphia in early June where he was again hosted by the Coates and spoke on the topic of “Foreign Education” at the University of Pennsylvania chapel. Arnold wrote to Coates in 1887 and 1888 from his home at Pains Hill Cottage in Cobham, Surrey, England describing his remembrance of and fondness for her “tulip-trees and maples” at her Germantown home, “Willing Terrace”. Rarely did Coates write or publish prose work, but in April 1894 and again in December 1909, she dedicated her pen to remembrances of her mentor in issues of The Century and Lippincott’s magazines respectively.
Between 1887 and 1912, Coates published over two dozen poems within The Century Magazine. Her correspondence between Century editor Richard Watson Gilder and others is documented at the New York Public Library Digital Collections website. In one letter dated 12 March 1905, Coates submitted to Mr. Gilder a poem she wrote after being inspired by a photograph of Helen Keller holding a rose which was published in The Century the previous January. Coates requested that, if published, the poem also be accompanied by a copy of the photograph, and shared that Ms. Keller sent word that she “accord[ed] [Coates] any permission” to use the photo for that purpose. The poem, “Helen Keller with a Rose”, was published in the July 1905 issue—without the accompanying photograph, but with reference to the issue in which it first appeared.