Mistaken identity

Remembrance Day in Britain (and places of British influence) would be incomplete without singing (or hearing sung) the hymn, I Vow To Thee My Country. It goes to the tune of Jupiter from Holst’s Planet Suite — and Holst himself adapted the tune to accompany the words written by Sir Cecil Spring Rice.

There are three verses, the first of which is well known to anyone raised in Britain, as it is often sung in school. The second and third verses are heard less often — and the second verse is downright heartbreaking — as you will see in the lyrics which follow further on.

The losses of the First World War are all the more tragic when you contemplate the possibility that it might have been avoided. But it was a conveniently timed war for all involved. In 1914, the British government was contending with a growing socialist movement at home — and nationalist movements in Ireland and India — as well as an increasingly militant suffragette movement. The declaration of war in the summer of 1914 brought all of that to skidding halt — and everyone was assured “it would be over by Christmas.”

One hundred years later — and it’s still not really over.

The third verse is the one that chokes us up — me and Alene. It’s supposed to be about heaven — but it reminds us of another country we knew — in another life — on another world.

It was a group of islands off the northwest coast of a major landmass — geographically rather similar to the British Isles — although much more mountainous. The capital city had a setting rather like that of Seattle. And the country just happened to be called Albion — which was the original, pre-Roman name of the island of Great Britain.

Albion enjoyed a few centuries as a colonial power — but this colonialism was about partnership and cooperation, rather than exploitation. After its reign of global superiority was over, Albion continued to be a world power — not because of military might or economic clout — but because of global respect for its commitment to justice and peace — and the confidence that Albion could always be counted on to act in the best of faith. Albion once had the world’s greatest navy, the symbol of which was the kingfisher. The kingfisher bird would later decorate the uniforms of the Air Force — which Alene and I both served in. We remember wearing the uniform with great pride.

When British patriots (and British supporters) get a lump in the throat at hearing this hymn, it is the spiritual ancestor, Albion, they are honoring — not the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It has been a horrible case of mistaken identity. Earth thought it was dealing with Albion — when in fact it was dealing with something far less honorable.

The lyrics are given below.

If you want to experience the full-blown performance, watch and listen here – but as you watch and listen, try to detach yourself from the Britishness, even as you spot PM David Cameron and various members of the Royal Family. Contemplate a galaxy so far from Earth, that even the Hubble telescope cannot see it – and a Sun-like star with an Earth-like planet that once had a human civilization – and a group of islands called Albion – once home to a nation of honorable people….

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.

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waves and waters, she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And around her feet are lying the dying and the dead;
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns;
I haste to thee, my mother, a son among thy sons.

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.

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