I Vow to Thee, My Country

I have recently grown fond of a rather beautiful poem. It’s called “I Vow to Thee, My Country.” Written by Sir Cecil Spring Rice, it outlines the devotion one has to his country, and the longing love to his eternal homeland.

It’s uncertain when exactly Rice wrote the poem, but many agree it was around 1912 when he was appointed as Britain’s ambassador to the United States. His main task: to convince the Woodrow Wilson Administration to abandon neutrality and join the fight against the Germans in World War I. His mission was successful, and in 1918, was recalled back to his island home. It was then that he reworked the poem to reflect a mood of somber loyalties one has to his country.

The poem was at one time memorized by all English boys and girls. So powerful was the appeal that Gustav Holst, composer of The Planets symphony, modified a key movement from “Jupiter” to fit it to the poem. It is a common anthem sung at numerous official events, and while it has a distinctly English feeling, for sure, the essence is universal.

Once titled “Urbs Dei” and “The Two Fatherlands,” the core theme is duty and love to home. It is appropriate, considering for most people, their place of birth (or adopted new country) is like their own familiar Jerusalem, a City of God. Pius XII once said

It is quite legitimate for nations to treat [their] differences as a sacred inheritance and guard them at all costs. The Church aims at unity, a unity determined and kept alive by that supernatural love which should be actuating everybody; she does not aim at a uniformity which would only be external in its effects and would cramp the natural tendencies of the nations concerned.

This is the essence at which the poem aims, to embrace the natural love one feels for their country, while keeping the heart and soul direct to the Eternal City in Heaven. While nations may go to war to protect themselves, the “country I heard of long ago” is gentle, and all her paths are peace.

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.