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Dr Giles and ‘I vow to thee, my country’

22 November 2013


From Mrs Caroline Kenny

Sir, - May I make a few comments on the Revd Dr Gordon Giles's article on my grandfather's hymn "I vow to thee, my country" (Comment, 8 November).

Dr Giles is not "renovating" this hymn, but rewriting it, presumably in accordance with some political agenda.

He claims that "there is much confusion about the provenance and purpose." There has never been any confusion about the provenance: it was written by Sir Cecil just before his death, and widely circulated very soon, originally by the family in replies to letters of condolence. As to his purpose, that is a matter of opinion; but it must be remembered that he was a lifelong and devout Christian.

It has been set to music by at least ten other composers in England and Ireland (I have copies), but only Holst's tune has ever become popular.

It was never a poem of three verses. The earlier two-verse version, which I have in manuscript in a notebook dated Sweden 1912, is entitled "Urbs Dei". This consists of a completely different first verse with the familiar second verse about the "other country". The verse beginning "I vow to thee" was indeed written in January 1918, and joined to the earlier second verse. It was sent in a private letter to ex-Secretary-of-State [William Jennings] Bryan. The earlier version does not appear in the published book of Sir Cecil's poems (Longmans, 1920), but it is clear that when he wrote it he already saw with horror the inevitability of the approaching slaughter and destruction of war.

I believe that the first verse is a description of a wholly and unexceptionably Christian selfless love, the sort that involves an unconditional commitment, and will certainly demand "service" and "sacrifice". It is relevant that Sir Cecil had recently lost a brother, killed in France, aged 51. His youngest brother also enlisted, though in his late forties, but mercifully survived the war.

The second verse is quite obviously an allegorical picture of the Kingdom of God/heaven in most memorable poetic words and images.

As for "a dated military concept of fighting for King and country": this is highly offensive to our troops and their families, and makes me ashamed to be a member of the same Church or country as Dr Giles.

Finally, I think my grandfather would have been surprised to find his poem set to music and used as a hymn, and absolutely astonished to find it known, loved, and heartily sung all over the English-speaking world. Indeed, in Canada, in June this year, the family, by invitation, unveiled a plaque beside his grave in Beechwood National Cemetery, Ottawa, to identify him as the writer of these words.

Russets, Straight Mile, Etchingham, East Sussex TN19 7BA

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