Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I like to play music on my laptop when I write. And the other day, for whatever reason, I started playing, over and over, a song from my high school days in New Zealand. I went to a church school, you see, although I’m not religious. An Anglican school, or Episcopalian, as Americans would say. And twice a week and sometimes on weekends we had to go to chapel. And every time we went to chapel we had to sing hymns. Some hymns stuck with me, including this one: “I Vow to Thee, My Country.”
But is it even a religious hymn? Some would describe it simply as a British patriotic song. Some call it one of Britain’s unofficial national anthems. Indeed the song came to prominence in the UK during WWI, when patriotism was all the rage. If you’re wondering why we kept singing it in New Zealand, well, as the New Zealand prime minister during WWII, Michael Joseph Savage, said when declaring war on Nazi Germany, “Where [Britain] goes, we go; where she stands, we stand.”
Well, I am not British, and I’ve never lived there. It would sure seem strange if I owed some allegiance to the United Kingdom, even if Queen Elizabeth II is technically my head of state.
But in fact, the patriotic provenance of the song itself is a complicated matter. The man who wrote the lyrics was Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, an Anglo-Irishman. If the Irish connection doesn’t complicate matters enough, the melody was taken from the Planets Suite (“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity”) by Gustav Holst, who was of German origin on his father’s side. German! Who were the British fighting again?
So I, a boy of Chinese heritage born in Taiwan, was singing, in New Zealand in the 1990s, a British patriotic anthem written 80 years earlier by an Anglo-Irishman and an Anglo-German. “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” it said. But which country? What country? Whose country? Not to mention that I would subsequently move to the United States. And although I never became a citizen there, I invested so much in that country and what it (supposedly) represented that on some levels I came to be patriotic toward it as only an immigrant could be.
So why has the song stuck if I could never figure out what it meant for me?
Perhaps what appeals to me about the song despite my ambivalence toward the very concept of countries and nations is its second verse:
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.
Given the Christian tradition whence it came, of course the verse implicitly refers to the Kingdom of Heaven, in which I do not believe. Indeed the final line is an allusion to Proverbs 3:17: “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.”
But religion aside, this verse has always scanned for me as a description of the hypothetical country to which I might swear allegiance. A country that does not exist physically but prevails as an idea. The Kingdom of Heaven, sure, if you want to call it that. Or the City of God, as St. Augustine had it.
Oscar Wilde said that patriotism is the virtue of the vicious. Undoubtedly this is true when patriotism is understood in a parochial manner: I happened to have been born in X country, therefore it must be the best. This point of view is not only vicious but simply silly.
But what of this other country, which I’ve heard of long ago? What of this other country that exists only as the sum total of our principles? I may have no physical country where I feel truly at home, but to this realm of ideals I can certainly make my pledge.
And I know that I’m not its only citizen. If you have been uprooted as I have, or if you’re simply inclined toward a higher notion of love for country than a mere accident of birth or devotion to a tract of land, then you may well be my compatriot. After all, soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase. So wherever it might manifest on earth, or even if it doesn’t but only persists in the fortress of faithful hearts, I vow to it, my country. And you ought to as well.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."