Did Gordon Brown, lately so concerned with Britishness, listen on Tuesday to Soul Music (Radio 4), about Sir Cecil Spring-Rice's "I Vow to Thee, My Country"? I hope so. It was so well-made: informative and stirring. When it began, however, with the wedding of Charles and Diana (at which the hymn was sung), my heart sank. "Here comes the bride!" yelped a hilariously posh commentator on catching sight of the glass carriage. Cut to Robert Runcie, the then archbishop of Canterbury. He intoned something about fairy tales, which would have been poignant, had his voice not reminded me so strongly of that of Alec Guinness dragged up to play Lady Agatha d'Ascoyne in Kind Hearts and Coronets.
It was Ralph Vaughan Williams who matched Sir Cecil's poem to "Jupiter", from Holst's Planets, when he was editing the 1925 hymnal Songs of Praise; he also set it to his own music, but that version never caught on, and it was the Holst that came to be appropriated by Tories, royalty and public-school boys. The words have a touching history. Spring-Rice wrote them in 1917, shortly before he left office as Britain's ambassador to the US. He had lost a brother on the Western Front, and a friend, so his poem is as much about making sense of loss as patriotism. Six weeks later, he died; left on his desk to be found by his successor in the job, these two scant verses were, as his biographer put it, "his signature", a last signing-off.
Vaughan Williams's marriage of words and music spoke to the national mood. During performances of The Planets, audiences would sing along, and when the British Legion began holding its service of remembrance at the Albert Hall the hymn was a popular choice. You can understand why; there were few people who had not experienced catastrophic bereavement, and Spring-Rice's words offered them hope. A Holst scholar quietly noted the hymn's second verse. If the first seems jingoistic and unthinking, to modern ears ("the love that asks no questions"), the second speaks of "another country": a future country, a heavenly country where "all her paths are peace".
Into this exploded an encounter between the Right Reverend Stephen Lowe, Bishop of Hulme, and John Humphrys, which took place on the Today programme in 2004. The bishop, you may recall, regards the hymn as having "echoes of 1930s nationalism" and, worse, as heretical, because one should put one's relationship with God before that with one's country. On Soul Music, he described the hundreds of letters he received following this pronouncement. They were very nasty. "Pew-emptier!" is the only insult I am able to reprint here. He did not, however, sound upset by this. He seemed to regard the tone of the letters alone as having proved his point. This made for great radio.
So whose side am I on? With the Holst scholar, I suspect. I love the tune of "I Vow to Thee . . ." too much to choose to read it literally. To me, it acknowledges suffering and vulnerability and then looks beyond those things - to faith, resurrection and consolation. You do not need to be a Christian to find comfort in that, nor, for that matter, a Tory. There is no reason why the Conservatives should
have all the best tunes, as Martin Linton, the Labour
MP for Battersea, and Billy Bragg acknowledged with their, erm, socialist rewriting of the hymn.
Oh dear. Sorry, guys, but there is no reason why the Tories should have all the best poems, either. "We vow to build a country where all can live in health" is a fine sentiment - the best - but it's about as lyrical as one of Tony Blair's speeches.