The hymn ‘I vow to thee my country’ was recently described as heretical by the Bishop of Hulme, on the grounds that a Christian's ultimate commitment is to God not to the nation state. Gerry Hanson, from Iver Heath,Bucks looks afresh at the words and defends its writer, Cecil Spring Rice.
PATRIOTISM often gets a bad press, being mistakenly linked to nationalism, jingoism and even xenophobia, but the true definition of patriotism as ‘the love of one’s country and a willingness to defend its freedom’ is a noble characteristic. Certainly, that has been the view of many famous poets and in some cases their patriotic poems have eventually turned into hymns. Famously, ‘Jerusalem’ by William Blake is one example of this genre; it combines phrases taken from the Bible (as for example, ‘Chariots of Fire’, which is taken from the Second Book of Kings) with Blake’s own mystical imaginings. It was written as a poem with no thought of being used as a hymn, and it was nearly a century after Blake’s death that the poet Robert Bridges suggested to Hubert Parry that it should be set to music. Parry’s magnificent tune turned it into one of our best loved hymns, earning it the place of our second national anthem. The same is true of ‘I vow to thee, my country’, which the diplomat and poet Cecil Spring Rice wrote in 1908 while he was serving in the British Embassy in Stockholm. ‘Ubs Dei’ or ‘The Two Fatherlands’ (the title of Spring Rice’s poem) explores the theme that a Christian is a citizen of two countries, his own and the heavenly kingdom and, indeed, the first verse would have less value if it was not related to the second. Spring Rice went to Washington in 1912 as Ambassador and is credited with doing much to influence Woodrow Wilson’s government to abandon its neutrality and join Britain and the Empire in the war against Germany. When the Americans did enter the war, Cecil Spring Rice was recalled and replaced by a member of the War Cabinet. Shortly before his departure in January 1918, he recast his Stockholm poem, and altered significantly the first verse which had glorified war in its almost belligerent patriotism. The experiences of the past four years altered his attitudes. Despite this, the first verse is often criticised. In particular, the line ‘The love that asks no questions’ is considered to imply a blind, uncritical patriotism ‘my country right or wrong’ but that was not how Spring Rice saw it. He viewed it in terms of the Christian idea of sacrifice, as he told his audience when he made a speech in Ottawa on his way home from the States. ‘The Cross is a sign of patience under suffering, but not patience under wrong. The Cross is the banner under which we fight – the Cross of St George, the Cross of St Andrew, the Cross of St Patrick – different in form, in colour, in history, yes, but the same spirit, the spirit of sacrifice’, he said. Aged only 58, Spring Rice died shortly after making that Ottawa speech – a great loss to the world of diplomacy as well as the world of literature.
Some seven years later, Gustav Holst set the words to music, using the tune Jupiter from his Planets suite. Spring Rice’s daughter had earlier attended St Paul’s School where she was in the same class as Imogen Holst, daughter of Gustav who was director of music at the school. It is almost certainly that connection which caused Holst to set it to music and for it to become the much loved hymn we sing today, lauding that ‘other country’ whose ways ‘are ways of gentleness and whose paths are paths of peace’. ‘He viewed it in terms of the Christian idea of sacrifice, as he told his audience when he made a speech in Ottawa on his way home from the States’