Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee
-Robert Stanley Weir and others
Some of my favorite pieces of literary criticism are Robert Graves’ line by line readings of famous poems. Often, Graves proves to his satisfaction, as well as mine, that the poem under scrutiny is not a masterpiece, but poorly thought out and incompetently rendered. The same can be said of Canada’s national anthem, “O Canada!” – which is hardly a surprise, because few if any national anthems are meant to do anything more than rouse a moment or two of cheap sentiment in those who happen to live in the country.
You know right from the start that Canada’s anthem is in trouble, because it starts with a vocative sentence. This is trouble because the vocative is so rarely used today that few people except Latin scholars understand that the first sentence is addressed directly towards Canada. So far as most people understand the sentence, they usually think it starts with a sigh, as though the speaker’s emotions about Canada are so strong that they can’t resist a wordless exclamation — an interpretation that hardly seems justified by what follows.
Not that there is much meaning to destroy. The song is addressing the country in the abstract – a mawkish approach, but one that, in a spirit of generosity, I have to admit is too common a poetic convention to reject. But what do the singers say to this great abstraction? It tells Canada to command loyalty from all those who are born there – and I think I have to be forgiven for wondering just how the singers’ pious wish will affect the matter in any way whatsoever. You might as well tell the waves that it’s fine with you that they continue hitting the beaches.
Then there’s the exclamation point at the end of the line – the first of four in ten lines. This is another unpromising sign, since the over-use of exclamation points is always a sure of sign that the speaker is trying to whip up some excitement while saying something unoriginal or dull.
And sure enough, the next line is a redundancy with another exclamation mark added in the hopes of adding some dignity to the sentiment. The only reason, of course, for the redundancy of “home and native” is that the writer of the words didn’t know what else to add that fitted the music.
But it gets worse as the song continues. What, I wonder, is “true patriot love?” How is it different from false patriot love (perhaps that of those who come “from far and wide” below)? More filler, followed by the unnecessary sexism of “in all thy sons command.” At least twice in my life time, feminists have tried to change the line to something like “in every child command,” only to be met by outrage, as though the English words had not been changed several times, and several different unofficial versions exist.
Struggling on, I suppose we have to bear “with glowing hearts.” After all, we are in the realm of patriotic doggerel, where the participles fly thick and fast, streaming and gleaming and beaming. For some reason, “ing” at the end of enough words lulls us into a sort of drowsy acceptance of whatever else follows. And I have to say that, after “glowing,” I am not surprised to see the line end with “thee,” an archaicism completely out of keeping with the rest of the poem and useful only in efforts to elevate a trite idea. Basically, the line is saying, “We’re proud to see you develop as a nation,” only much less clearly.
As for “True North,” I suppose that is supposed to mean “faithful,” and to refer to Canada’s position as a former colony that is still on good terms with the mother country (It almost assuredly doesn’t mean that Canada is the location of True North for navigators). But “North,” alone, leaves Canada defined entirely by geography – an all too common occurrence that makes the place sound about as exciting as a mound of three month old snow on the curb.
And don’t get me started on “strong and free.” The last time that Canada could defend its own borders was in World War Two. Very likely, that was the only time. The history of the country can be neatly summarized as, “Era of French Domination, Era of English Domination, Era of American Domination.” To say the least, it’s incongruous for a satellite country to be describing itself as either “strong” or “free.”
Next up is one of the more recent bits of editing, “from far and wide.” Most likely, it was added to acknowledge the number of immigrants in the last few decades. But how do you reconcile this line with “home and native land?” If you’re born in the place, you don’t come from “far and wide,” and if you do come “from far and wide,” then Canada isn’t your “native” land.
Even more importantly, how do you “stand on guard” “from far and wide?” It sounds as physically impossible as some of the awkward poses of female super heroes on the covers of comic books. Anyway, as I said, Canada has rarely been able to defend itself, never mind against whom (perhaps the Americans buying up our corporations?).
Even to the composer, the jumble of thought is too much. Another vocative and another “thee” are thrown in, with God and another mention of freedom added to the mix as well, all in the impossible hope that an elevated mess can be mistaken for something meaningful.
Unfortunately, this mishmash and all the efforts to play on listeners’ emotions don’t lead anywhere, so the ending is problematic, All that can be done is to repeat what has already been said. That’s not a bad trick if you have something rousing to say, but here it falls flat. That’s probably why, any time you ever hear “O Canada” there is always an uneasy silence and an almost audible shuffling of feet: there’s nothing is nothing to indicate that the mercifully brief ordeal is over.
Someone – I forget whom – once said that more Canadians of my age knew the words to the opening of The Bugs Bunny / Roadrunner Hour than knew the words to “O Canada.” That was mainly a reference to the number of changes that have been made to the anthem in our lifetimes. It may have referred, too, to the fact that, to many Canadians, overt displays of patriotism are embarrassing.
But I think that it also has something to do with the fact that the national anthem is only comprehensible for more than two or three words at a time. It is difficult to remember words you don’t understand – just try memorizing a dozen lines in a language you don’t understand if you don’t believe me.
You don’t expect original or deep thought in an anthem. But is basic literacy too much to ask? At least “The Maple Leaf Forever,” for all that it ignores the Quebecois and First Nations, makes literal sense. But Canada’s anthem, I’m ashamed to say, is almost entirely nonsensical and border-line illiterate. It only really serves its purpose when the music is played without the words. With the words, it’s either confusing or embarrassing.