words: Sir Cecil Spring Rice (1859-1918), music: Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
This article fist appeared in the November 2017 issue of our parish magazine:
A long time favourite, I was reminded of this hymn in May 2017 when I attended an Open Day at Trinity Laban Conservatoire with Jennifer. The last item on the schedule for prospective vocal applicants was a master class with mezzo soprano Sarah Pring. Four existing Trinity students had been lined up to receive 1-2-1 lessons from Sarah in front of the audience which comprised of potential students and their parents. The potential students were also offered the opportunity to receive a lesson from Sarah in front of the same audience. A young man from Belfast agreed to take part. He had no music with him so he sang unaccompanied, and as he began it became clear that he had had no previous singing tuition. However, despite the lack of any kind of technical brilliance, he sang this hymn with such passionate belief that it was amongst the most powerful performances of the day.
The words were written by Sir Cecil Spring Rice in 1912, and make reference to the dual calls of Christian duty to their homeland and to the heavenly kingdom. In 1921 the poem was sent to Gustav Holst to be set to music. His daughter Imogen later recorded that at that time, Holst was so over worked that it was with some relief that he realised the meter of the poem fitted with “Jupiter” from his “Planets Suite”:
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.
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 first verse clearly tells of the loss of the Great War, recorded by so many other poets of the time. Millions of men from many nations were casually sacrificed for the gain of a few yards of land. They did what was widely considered to be their duty, paying the ultimate price without question. 2000 years ago, another young man was sacrificed. The “dearest and the best” demonstrated a love that asked no question, but did as he was bid, unfaltering and undaunted, despite the desertion of his dearest and best.
The second verse speaks of heaven. The great kingdom that those of us living cannot see, but know exists in splendour. Gentle, peaceful and faithful, those that wish to enter this country are simply asked to live the suffering of our lord and the joy of his resurrection.
Wikipedia tells us that the final line of the second verse is based on Proverbs 3:17, “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace” (KJV), in the context of which the feminine pronoun refers to Wisdom.
You can hear a recording of I Vow to Thee My Country here.