Well, well, well. So our beloved national anthem is receiving another tweak. Instead of singing “in all thy sons command” we can cheerfully belt forth “in all of us command”. Personally, I’ve been mouthing the latter phrase for some time. Apparently “mouthing” but not singing was a good idea because I might have been standing beside one of those Conservative senators who think the new tweak is historical sacrilege. If you wish you can take a look here to see how wrong they are.
But whether anthem or hymn I find it an interesting exercise to take a close look at the meaning of the words we sing. Sometimes, in the case of a hymn, a word or phrase or entire line brings me to a full stop when I actually think about what it is I’m parroting.
Of course the national anthem is rather innocuous and improves with every tweak. Even so, many years ago an eccentric and rather peculiar friend of mine almost had a nervous breakdown when he began to analyze “O Canada”.
In keeping with the original — and much neglected — intent of this blog let’s turn the clock back to 1988 and see what problems my pal Newshawk found by taking too close a look:
A Patriotic Conversation
It was Canada Day and I was reading in my study when I heard a rustle from beneath a newspaper I had carelessly tossed to one side. I lifted one corner and there was my old friend.
“Newshawk,” I said, “why are you sitting all huddled up like that? And why are you whimpering?”
“I’m cracking up! I’m paying too much attention.”
“Attention to what?”
“The words,” he whimpered. “The words.” He glanced around furtively, then whispered. “Do you ever listen to the words?”
“I try to. When people talk.”
“Yes, but when they sing?”
“Oh, oh. You’ve been singing ‘O Canada’?”
“I thought it would be safe,” he blubbered. “Once a year, anyway. But then I started to pay attention –” his eyes lost their focus for a moment then, with an effort, he pulled himself together. “Glorious and free,” he quoted. “What’s it mean?”
“Glorious,” said I, pompously, “means possessing exalted renown. You know, illustrious fame.”
“Oh sure,” he said, “but I looked it up. It also means hilarious from drink!”
“Well — take your choice.”
“I tried to.” He looked furtively around, then lowered his voice. “The exalted version doesn’t fit.”
I protested. “We can’t sing, ‘O Canada, plastered and free’!”
“But that’s just it,” he said, pulling the paper over his head, “if we’re not plastered how can we believe the ‘free’?” There was a long pause. “You see, I looked ‘free’ up, too. It means subject neither to foreign domination or to high-handed government.”
“My poor old friend. Pay more attention to the music. Think of the words as a vehicle for the notes. Enjoy the sound, the occasion, the togetherness, the –“
“We stand on guard for thee,” he said. “I thought the country is supposed to stand on guard for us?”
“Sure. That, too.”
“But which comes first? And if Canada commits suicide for us, then what do we stand on guard for?”
“You’re right, old friend, you are coming unstuck.”
His eyes filled with tears and he scuttled under a chair. “Can’t help it. Been listening to the words.” His voice was muffled but I could still hear him. He began to sing! “True patriot love in all thy sons command.”
“That’s better,” I said.
He broke off. “No, that’s worse. What is it? A hymn or a prayer? Why ‘command’? Are we asking to be ordered to have true patriot love? If we don’t have it naturally how can it be commanded? And is there a false patriot love?”
“I expect so.”
“How do we know a true one? And what’s patriot mean?”
“Oh, come now,” I protested, “a patriot is one who stands up for his country.”
Newshawk emerged from hiding and almost stamped on my foot. “You see?” he said, angrily, “you don’t know, either. ‘Way back in 1837 and ’38, all those rebels — some marching on Toronto — some encouraging Americans to invade us — they’re in the history books as patriots! And they lost! If the patriots lost, who won? When we pray for true patriot love are we exhorting ourselves to march on the government?”
“Ah, ha, old friend, you’ve hit on it. Yes indeed. Don’t mistake government for country. True patriot love demands that every so often we march on Toronto, and Quebec, and Victoria, and oh yes indeed, frequently on Ottawa.”
He brightened. “Glorious patriots?”
“You bet. Delightfully looped rebels. That should be us. Cling to that thought when you sing ‘O Canada’. In the meantime, my friend, try to enjoy the music.” ✲
Now that I think of it, while we’re in the mood for analyzing and tweaking I’d like to see one more little change. Let’s sing “O Canada! Our home and the natives’ land!”. In the name of Reconciliation it should fly, but as a tweak it would really make some of our senators twitch.
✲ A Patriotic Conversation.
From: Down Paradox Lane
Lindsay This Week, July 5,1988
Copyright © Munroe Scott