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{Wednesday, May 27, 2009  }

.:{Patriotic Hymnody}:.


Surrounding Glastonbury Abbey near Bedford in England are apocryphal tales of Joseph of Arimathea and Christ establishing a wattle-and-daub church, of Joseph thrusting his spear into the ground whereupon the Glastonbury thorn grew up, and of a place in which he buried the Holy Grail, whereupon a spring flowed forth.

(ahem Please note I say these tales are apocryphal only because I think the true resting place of the Holy Grail is somewhere in Spain.)

And why? Because why wouldn't Christ take time out of his busy schedule to bring Christianity, personally, to God's own country, that is, England?

However, the aforementioned legend in ancient Glastonbury was also the inspiration for Blake's famous poem And did those feet in ancient times, originally the preface to his pandering Milton: a Poem. The poem reads thus:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen !

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills ?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills ?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my Chariot of fire !

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.


On its own, the poem is alright. Granted, I have a bias against the English Romantics and I think their best portrayal is in Blackadder the Third (here, round abouts 4:33; "Quiet, woman! Can't you see we're dying?"). However, when set to music in 1916, and in the dark days of World War I it became a sort of God-and-St-George patriotic Anglican hymn, seen and heard in this slightly effusive Youtube video:



I find the composition much improved when set to music, and I find historical context adds quite a lot. When this hymn becomes the aforementioned patriotic hurrah, it's actually quite moving.

I was thinking of this mostly through a combination of the Monty Python mattress sketch and the fact that this past weekend was Memorial day, and filled with our own American patriotic songs. None so fascinating, I submit, as the above. But for good reason.

A friend of mine pointed out, rightly I think, that our best patriotic song is America. It is both beautiful and poetic and not too weird. He also pointed out the Battle Hymn of the Republic which contains just the sort of problems that Mark Shea often points out, and leads to confusions like John Brown's Body, John Brown himself being a ... questionable figure, glorified by the abolitionists whilst painting over the problems he brings up rather than addressing them, as the 19th century was very wont to do.

But our lack of uniquely American and mostly non-weird patriotic hymnody (please note the tune for "My Country 'Tis of Thee" is actually the tune for "God Save the King") is not really our fault. It simply comes from being one of the newest kids on the block, and "growing up", if you will, in a modern and sometimes post-Enlightenment era. We didn't have the deeply religious time of the Middle Ages, our country didn't have a Renaissance, and thus we lack some cultural richness (but also many problems, Deo gratias) that comes with age.

America is a truly unique place -- the worldwide melting pot (at least in theory) makes us a sort of culturally new thing, which, being a confluence of many things, isn't any one new thing. I believe this sometimes makes us cultural schizophrenics. I think, unfortunately, we're past the days of heroic patriotic hymnody (+thank God we're past the days of Blake, the Romantics and the Transcendentals), but we're learning a new kind of patriotism, whether for good or ill I am not yet able to say, and what that post-Nationalistic patriotism looks like I could tell you less (I am unfortunately more backwards-looking than forward-thinking on such issues, and must often look over my shoulder before I could guess at what's ahead).

In the meantime, though we've not the pretty hymns to say it, we ought to remember this whole week the men and women who died defending this country in the line of duty, and to thank them wholeheartedly.
posted by Lauren, 8:15 AM

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