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From the July/August, 2012 issue of Touchstone


A Song for a Nation by Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen on Christian Hymns

A Song for a Nation

One of the great pleasures of riding a bicycle in a state as long-settled as Rhode Island is that, when you're not in the city, you often find yourself in the midst of a palimpsest of human life in its passage through the many years. There are the little "historical cemeteries," about a thousand of them, sometimes no more than a small family plot, protected by iron fences and dutifully tended. There are the miles of low stone walls running zigzag through the woods, marking what used to be fields and pastures. There are square pits in the earth, old root cellars, perhaps; and sometimes the walled embankments of a diverted stream, to provide power for a gristmill that no longer stands.

I wasn't born here, but I have grown fond of the place, with its geographical and historical bumps. I now can order a grinder at a diner or a cabinet at an ice cream stand, and can, for the voice of a Cyclops, turn a short a into a triphthong and swallow my r's like any tattooed fisherman or real estate salesman around. I know where the fallen trestle is on the train bed that is now a bike path, and something in me is fond of that big broken tooth, though I'll admit that it might provide a rude surprise for the unwary.

I find it hard to love my country without first turning to the crazy coal heap in Pennsylvania where I was born, or to this bumptious county trying so very hard to be a real state. Yet I suspect that's all right, after all. C. S. Lewis imagined heaven as an English countryside—why not? Surely there is some of heaven in that land, however difficult it may be to see sometimes, or to hear, or to touch. The old pagani, the "hillbillies," to translate the Roman word loosely, knew that love well, and clung to their old ways long after the Good News had been preached in the cities. I hope the Lord looked gently upon their blockheadedness, because just as to love one's father on earth is preparation for loving one's Father in heaven, so to love the land of one's mortality is preparation for loving the land of immortality.

That's why we ought to sing patriotic hymns. I don't mean songs that merely boast of the military bravery of Frenchmen or the cool wisdom of Italians, or the enlightenment of the sprouts of Brussels: "See where the meddling lawyer comes!" I mean hymns, songs that place love of country in the only light where it can really flourish and not grow wild and bitter, or wither away: in the light of the countenance of God.

Therefore my favorite anthem on Independence Day is the humble one that was once simply called "America":

My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing:
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims' pride,
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring.

The mortal part of my father, God bless him, now rests on a sunny hillside in my hometown; and how could I not love that place? When I was a child, I heard Mass there every year with all the paraders on Memorial Day, and now, beside his grave, as beside so many others, stands a small American flag, witness to his service.

But lest we suppose that our love is only to a concept—freedom, so little understood—the second stanza brings us to the little country bridge that spans earth and heaven:

My native country, thee,
Land of the noble free,
Thy name I love
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture thrills
Like that above.

I doubt whether one person in a hundred could now understand those words. We sing—not of Mount Rushmore or the Mississippi, but of the small and the beloved, the running streams and the hills that are hushed like holy temples, and we can nearly say, with the saint, that whether in the body or out of the body, we are caught up to the heaven of heavens.

If we do stand for an idea, that idea is also a call, and one made by a man who climbed the hills of his own native land:

Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom's song;
Let mortal tongues awake,
Let all that breathe partake,
Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.

So when the Pharisees demanded that Jesus rebuke his disciples for saying, "Blessed be the King that cometh in the name of the Lord," Jesus replied, "I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out" (Luke 19:38–40).

Do the rocks then break their silence, reverberating the song of freedom? Yes, because they proclaim the very bestower of freedom. The man who penned these lines, Samuel Francis Smith, saw his countrymen as exchanging one king for another, a king who had exercised unjust dominion over the American people for the true King whose dominion sets men free:

Our fathers' God, to thee,
Author of liberty,
To thee we sing:
Long may our land be bright
With freedom's holy light;
Protect us by thy might,
Great God, our King.

And to that, let every loving heart cry, Amen! 

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

“A Song for a Nation” first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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