This week a lot of people will sing the hymn ‘I Vow to Thee my Country’ at Remembrance services. The hymn, which combines the words of a poem by British Diplomat Sir Cecil Spring-Rice with a beautiful tune by Gustav Holst, is enormously popular. And having been sung at both the wedding and funeral of Princess Diana it has become cherished by many.
But these qualities should not mask its highly dubious lyrics:
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.
It is telling that these words were written in 1908 before the First World War. The idea of promising to show a love for our country which ‘asks no questions’ and undauntedly sacrifices people is highly questionable. In my view this is not true patriotism. Rather it too easily lends itself to a nationalism which demands uncritical loyalty and blind obedience and which contributed to the slaughter of the 1914-18 war.
Patriotism and nationalism
George Orwell wrote about the difference between patriotism and nationalism:
By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people…Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
Orwell was deeply critical of the injustices and pomposity of his own country, but he helped re-define patriotism through an honest appreciation of Britain’s qualities. In his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ he wrote ‘In England such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in…the belief influences conduct, national life is different because of them.’ For him, these strengths made the country worth fighting for against the tyranny of Nazism.
The kind of patriotism we need today will combine both appreciation and critique. A good artistic example was Danny Boyle’s incredible opening ceremony to the London 2012 Olympics. It stands in contrast to the many who delight in a cynical mocking of their own country and who show no appreciation of the freedoms and quality of life we enjoy.
The dying and the dead
At the end of the war, Spring-Rice wrote an additional verse to his poem which is far less jingoistic, but rarely sung:
I heard my country calling, away across the sea, Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me. Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head, And round 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.
This verse at least reflects something of the terrible reality of loyalty to one’s country in the midst of war. It is a cost and horror which should daunt us.
It is a sentiment which is captured by the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ at the Tower of London which I visited last night. Seeing the vast sweep of red poppies, and hearing the names of the soldiers killed being read out along was powerful and moving. As a lone bugler played The Last Post, he embodied the words of Spring-Rice’s unused verse as around his feet lay the thousands of flowers representing the dead.
It was understated, haunting and evocative. Powerful and patriotic, but not nationalistic.