The words of I Vow To Thee, My Country sung so beautifully by Katherine Jenkins were written by Cecil Spring Rice in 1908 and define an era when the world was a very different place. It was a world that was very class conscious, where Empires ruled and where innocence existed alongside a great sense of adventure. There was still much to discover, enormous scientific discoveries had been made or were on the verge of being made, The Titanic had yet to be built, let alone sink, and the ravages of World War were as yet unthinkable. When Gustav Holst wrote the music to Jupiter from the Planets Suite the melody for “I vow to thee, my country” was forever set.

Now here I nail my colours firmly to the mast as a person of a certain age, brought up in a forces family during the twilight years of the British Empire and being made to sing this song in a primary school choir. It is a beautiful tune and a beautiful but, for many, an undoubtedly dated lyric. I learned to play Holst’s melody on recorder, melodica and piano by ear, note by painful note. It brought tears to my eyes but not before it had brought tears to others and I thought it was absolutely wonderful. To this day I believe it gives Jerusalem a run for its money as an English National Anthem but it is considered flawed and therefore rejected.

I am not a fan of nationalism. In an era when we need to act local but think global the last thing we need is national fervour any more than we need proselytizing religions fighting it out for supremacy in the Middle East or anywhere else. What the world needs is less “us and them” and more freedom and working together. This beautiful song has even been called heresy by those who hate jingoist philosophies but on the anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War I wanted to think of those words as a poet and look for a different meaning. I truly believe that Cecil Spring Rice’s words have been taken purely at face value for a long time yet beneath them lies something universal and very spiritual. So for better, for worse, here is my take on what could have been an English National Anthem but for it being considered too patriotic.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

This has been labelled by one churchman as heresy, but it refers to all earthly things. In the Christian tradition and understanding that means rendering unto Caesar all things that are Caesar’s. Earthly things are material, not spiritual. It says that my love should be entire and whole and perfect and if love is less than those things it cannot be love can it?

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.

Oh my, think of those words in the context of the First World War? It never ceases to amaze me how many wonderful and talented young lives were cut short in the carnage born out of a conglomeration of diplomatic mistakes and proud rulers. This was indeed a powerful call to service and a call that most young men would have responded to without question. I think of this poem in a different context though, remember it was written during peace time? I think of it as saying love is not love if it only exists in easy circumstances. This could be just as easily extrapolated to a marriage, a deep friendship, living donation of transplant organs, a hero risking his or her life to save the innocent. It is about being prepared to sacrifice everything to achieve something better. That is a concept much bandied about by those who do not truly look to the greater good, but when sacrifice is truly made in the name of life, not power and certainly not to inflict death, then that is a form of profound love.

The second verse is rarely if ever sung. I certainly cannot remember singing it and this may be because of the military references. Pretending it doesn’t exist is not the answer though. An attempt at understanding it might be better even if we choose not to sing those words.

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.

Only someone who has been an expat can truly understand that profound feeling of homesickness. I knew it as a child. There is something magical about the land of our birth wherever that may be and however flawed our homeland might be. Like salmon we are all programmed with the homing instinct. It is in our very genes.

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.

There is little doubt that these lines are an appeal to youth to protect their country as they would a mother. That may not be a fashionable statement, but it is one soldiers of all nations will be able to relate to.

Now what follows are the lines that to this day bring tears to my eyes. Cecil Spring Rice extrapolates those feelings of love, sacrifice, loyalty, family and bravery to a whole different level. This is a spiritual level and no doubt he made it in the context of Christian belief but I don’t think it excludes any other belief, including humanism or atheism.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

In other words, the country of our birth or affiliation is not the most important thing in the world. That is a country within the mind, the heart, the soul; a country that has no boundaries; a country that not everyone knows, but those who do love it will love it more than anything else.

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

This country Spring Rice speaks of is not defined by power, by the might of armies or the pomp and ceremony of royalty and government. Her fortress is a faithful heart, not a nuclear deterrent; her pride is suffering, not the defeat of others. These lines are telling us that deep within the human spirit is the greatest country of all and that often the human spirit cannot be defeated.

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

And one by one we will all learn to realise that there is more than one village, one town, one country, one race, one species because in fact we are all one. We are one because our lives and the impact of our thoughts and actions impinge on the entire globe, its weather systems, its flora and fauna. This new country of ours, the country of the mind and heart that seems so sadly distant at times, is within our grasp and our own making and one by one, soul by soul, this is what all right thinking men and women will come to see. The ways of this country are not those of conquest, they do not involve the domination of one race or religion over others; they are the ways of gentleness and above all they are the paths to peace if only we open our hearts to all.

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