Monday, November 9, 2015

I Vow to Thee My Country

   For the last couple of years we've included the hymn, "I Vow to Thee, my Country," in our Act of Remembrance on the Sunday before November 11.  This hymn was not in the hymnary I grew up with, so I thought I'd find out something about it's origins and use.
     While the hymn is associated with war and remembrance,it was written in peacetime, 1908.  The author, Cecil Spring Rice, was a British diplomat, posted to Sweden at the time.  The lyrics of the first verse express the longing and love of an ex-pat for his homeland.  Some critics consider the words too jingoistic, going beyond patriotism to a dangerous nationalism, others counter that the lines speak of "earthly things" and make a statement on the nature of love.
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

     The closing verse speaks of "another country", the Heavenly Kingdom, that the Christian loves even more than his earthly homeland.  The final line references Proverbs 3:17Her[Wisdom's] ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace."  
This verse urges Christians to make the Kingdom of God our goal and our pattern for living.  There can be no controversy over the sentiment of these lines. 

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

     There is another verse, very rarely included in the hymn.  It was written by Spring Rice in 1918, while he was ambassador to the United States.  One of his duties in that role was to encourage America to support the allies in WWI.  One might have expected him to exalt the claim of country at that time, yet this new verse replaces the ringing promises of the patriot with the sombre reflection of a witness to the carnage of war.  Yet Spring Rice remains unshaken in his love for his country, seeing her as a mother and he her son.
I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waves and waters, she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And around her feet are lying the dying and the dead;
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns;
I haste to thee, my mother, a son among thy sons.

     There are other hymns sung on Remembrance Day, "O God Our Help in Ages Past,"  "Eternal Father Strong to Save,"  "O Valiant Hearts," to name just a few, but "I Vow to Thee my Country," continues as a favourite, despite the objections of some.  It may be the tune that makes it so popular.  Thaxted, an adaptation of  the Jupiter movement from Gustav Holst's "The Planets," cannot fail to stir the soul.  Holst made his first adaptation in 1921, then, at the request of his friend Ralph Vaughn Williams, he harmonized it in 1926 so it could be a sung as a hymn.  Thaxted is the name of the village where Holst lived.  
     The hymn has been sung at weddings, at funerals, on Remembrance Day, at sporting events, and at school graduations.  It bears no childhood memories for me, but the tune alone makes me glad I've learned it.

    Whatever you sing on Remembrance Day, however you mark the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, say a prayer for those who put themselves in harms way so others can live freely and in peace.

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