I Vow to Thee My Country


I FELT that in these troubled times a patriotic hymn would be a comfort, reminding us of what makes us proud of our country and why most of us want to keep our identity.

The words of I Vow to Thee, My Country were originally a poem by Sir Cecil Spring Rice (1859-1918), a British diplomat who served as British Ambassador to the United States from 1912 to 1918, being responsible for the organisation of British efforts to end American neutrality during the First World War.

Spring Rice was born into an aristocratic and influential Anglo-Irish family. He was educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford. He joined the Foreign Office as a clerk in 1882, but made an unusual move to the diplomatic service, starting with his first posting to Washington DC in 1887. Subsequently he served in Japan, Germany (where he met the British ambassador’s daughter Florence Lascelles, whom he married in 1904), Persia, Egypt, Russia and Sweden, finally becoming British Ambassador to the United States in 1912.

Spring Rice’s efforts to end US neutrality eventually met with success when America entered the conflict on the side of the Allies in 1917. However in mid-January 1918, following a disagreement with Daily Mail proprietor Lord Northcliffe, the head of the British war mission to America, he was abruptly recalled to London in a one-line telegram.

Spring Rice immediately travelled to Canada to begin his journey back to Britain. There he died at three weeks later at the age of 58. His health had not been good, but it was suggested by his family and friends that he had died of a broken heart following his removal from office. US politician Henry Cabot Lodge said that ‘the sudden cessation of his work and responsibilities in which his heart was bound up caused him the loss of the will to live’.

He wrote I Vow to Thee, My Country some time between 1908 and 1912, while he was Ambassador to Sweden. It was called Urbs Dei (The City of God) or The Two Fatherlands and described how a Christian owes his loyalties to both his homeland, the first verse, and the heavenly kingdom, the second. Shortly before his departure from the US in January 1918, he revised the poem, significantly altering the first verse to focus on the dreadful loss of life in the Great War and changing the title.

These are the words:

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 questions, 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.

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.

The poem circulated privately for a few years until it was set to music by Gustav Holst.

Holst (1874-1934) was born in Cheltenham to Adolph von Holst, a professional musician of mixed Swedish, Latvian and German ancestry, with at least one professional musician in each of the previous three generations, and his wife Clara Cox, the daughter of a respected Cirencester solicitor. His father would have liked him to become a professional pianist, but Gustav had neuritis in one arm which made playing difficult. In any case his love was composing. He studied at the Royal College of Music, supporting himself by playing the trombone at seaside resorts in the summer and in London theatres in the winter. He became friendly with Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Morris. On leaving the Royal College he played in orchestras, but hated wasting the time when he could be composing.

After his father died, leaving him a small legacy, he gave up orchestral work and devoted himself to composing, taking a teaching post at James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London to supplement his earnings. Later he moved to St Paul’s Girls’ School. His reputation as a composer grew slowly at first, but after his best-known work, The Planets, was premiered in 1918 he was suddenly in demand. He did not enjoy being famous. The music scholar Byron Adams wrote: ‘He struggled for the rest of his life to extricate himself from the web of garish publicity, public incomprehension and professional envy woven about him by this unsought-for success.’ He turned down honours and awards, and refused to give interviews or sign autographs.

In 1921 he was asked to set I Vow to Thee, My Country to music. This was apparently the idea of Spring Rice’s daughter Mary, who was a pupil at St Paul’s. At the time Holst was almost overwhelmed with work and was relieved to find that a section from Jupiter, part of The Planets, fitted the words almost perfectly.

It was performed as a unison song with orchestra in the early 1920s, and in 1926 Holst harmonised the tune. It was then named Thaxted, after the Essex village where Holst lived for many years.

The hymn has come in for criticism by trendy church folk. In 2004 the then Bishop of Hulme, the Right Reverend Stephen Lowe, described it as ‘heretical’ and accused it of having ‘echoes of 1930s nationalism in Germany and some of the nastier aspects of right-wing republicanism in the United States’. However it remains a national favourite, being a staple of Remembrance commemorations and national occasions.

Regular readers will know that I usually give several versions of a hymn, but in this case I am concentrating on just two.

It was sung at Sir Winston Churchill’s state funeral on 30 January 1965. I can’t find a clip of the moment at St Paul’s Cathedral but here is a short film using an arrangement of I Vow to Thee, My Country as its background theme. It shows the lying in state at Westminster Hall, which my parents queued for hours in the middle of the night to attend. The scene of the Thames cranes bowing in salute as his coffin was borne along the river on its way to burial at Bladon brings tears to my eyes.

It was sung, too, at the end of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, also at St Paul’s, on 17 September 2013. I have picked a video of the full funeral because all the clips seem to have a choir dubbed on top. I Vow to Thee, My Country starts at 44m 34s. Among the many politicians you can see are Norman Tebbit, Eric Pickles, Iain Duncan Smith and Jeremy Hunt. I wonder what they think of their party now? You can also see Cameron, Osborne, Bercow, Grieve and Letwin. I wonder if they would have the front to sing this hymn today?

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