The Glass Walking Stick



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THE NATIONAL ANTHEM


1911

I SEE that there is a movement in many influential quarters for cutting out the best verse in the National Anthem. This is very typical of many of our ‘reforms’ that arise out of a sense of refinement and not out of a sense of right. When I say the best verse, I mean the one that confounds the tricks of all the enemies of the State. And I call it the best verse because, in a work that no one particularly praises or preserves for literary reasons, it is the most quaintly national, the most unique, the most sincere and vigorous, and by far the most democratic. One does not hold up ‘God Save the King’ as a poem like the ‘Mariners of England’, any more than one holds up the picture of John Bull as something beautiful and well-proportioned, like the St George of Donatello. The thing is a patriotic curiosity; and the most curious and patriotic part of it is exactly the part that these people want to cut out. And, ethically, it is excellent.

Confound their politics,

Frustrate their knavish tricks,

may not be very good poetry, but it is very good, sound Christian morals. If there are any knavish tricks, I hope we all pray they may be frustrated. And as for confounding politics, a good many of us have been in sympathy with the idea ever since we made a study of the ways of the confounded politicians. The poem does not define the people denounced, except in so far that they are the enemies of the King, who is in all such symbolic songs made a symbol of the commonwealth. I happen to think that the King’s worst enemies often sit at his own Council-board, and that England’s worst invaders and destroyers often have the high places in the senate; but all this does not prevent me from singing the anthem with heartiness and relish.

What the refined people (confound their knavish tricks!) will not see is that, if you are loyal to anything and wish to preserve it, you must recognize that it has or might have enemies; and you must hope that the enemies will fail. The real insolence, if there were any, would lie in saying, ‘God save the King’ — in calling the Universal and Eternal to take care of a particular tribal chief on a trivial little island. But undoubtedly, if you have a right to ask God to save him, you have a right to ask God to frustrate those who seek to destroy him; the two sentences simply mean the same thing. The oblivion of so obvious a fact is only a part of that foolish forgetfulness of the real ethics of fighting which is equally perilous today, whether it takes its Jingo or its Pacifist form. Not only is the army the chief business of our processions; but processions seem to be considered the chief business of the army. From no point of view ought armaments to be ornaments. I have no respect for that chronic war-fever, or love of conquest, which (as the phrase goes) draws the sword and throws away the scabbard. But I have even less respect for that arrogant etiquette that keeps the scabbard when it has thrown away the sword. And among the results of this masquerade style of militarism is a neglect of the most naked and structural principles of fighting.

Nothing is baser in our time than the idea that we can have special enthusiasms for things, so long as they are secure, without pledging ourselves to uphold them if they are ever in peril. You cannot have a devotion that is not a boundary. You cannot have a boundary that is not a barricade. If you do not think mankind a sacred brother hood to be everywhere saluted and saved, then do not say so. But if you do say so, then you must certainly be ready to save it from sharks or tigers, from monsters or from microbes. If you do not think your nation a solid entity and a holy soil, then do not call it your nation. But if you do, you must admit that it might be as much hated by others as it is loved by you. If it is really individual, it is just as likely to be hated as it is to be loved.

There is another obvious moral ground upon which we should continue to ‘confound their politics’. The refined people (confound, &c.) seem to think that there is something unpleasant and profane about making a war religious. I should say that there ought to be no war except religious war. If war is irreligious, it is immoral. No man ought ever to fight at all unless he is prepared to put his quarrel before that invisible Court of Arbitration with which all religion is concerned. Unless he thinks he is vitally, eternally, cosmically in the right, he is wrong to fire off a pocket-pistol. If he does think he is in the right, he is surely justified in praying that the right may prevail. The separation between war and the Church, like the separation between business and the Chapel, would only mean that the religion would grow much too thin, while the cynicism would grow much too fat. It would be a good thing if religion thought a little more about this world — and if politics thought a little more about the other.

And lastly, no one seems to notice that this verse of the National Anthem (if my memory serves me right) is the only one that contains the popular note of comradeship as well as the popular note of conflict. I quote from memory, but I think the verse runs —

O Lord, our God, arise,

Scatter his enemies,

And make them fall.

Confound their politics,

Frustrate their knavish tricks;

On Thee our hopes we fix:

God save us all.

It is the only verse that begins with something like fine Biblical diction, as of a whirlwind rising. It is the only verse that ends with a universal and democratic benediction. I do not wonder that the Moderns want it removed.





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