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God defend New Zealand

April 30, 2021 - 13:24 -- Admin

No folks, that is not a joke. Listening to it on occasion over the years, I’ve grown fond of the New Zealand National Anthem. The tune is classic national anthem. That is to say it manages to fuse both aspiration and pathos as any national project should.

Because of my excessive familiarity with it, it’s harder to be objective about the Australian National Anthem. It’s also a cliche of educated left of centre opinion that it’s essentially silly. Trying to listen to the tune as if for the first time it does have some emotional resonance. But not much. And the words are mostly silly. And when they are not. They are shallow or forelock tugging to our colonial masters – it’s quite striking how absent that is from the New Zealand effort. Looking up the words of New Zealand’s national anthem, and making allowances for the idiom of the time, the sentiments they express are fine ones.

Men of every creed and race,
Gather here before Thy face,
Asking Thee to bless this place,
God defend our free land.
From dissension, envy, hate,
And corruption guard our state,
Make our country good and great,
God defend New Zealand.

Quite worthy, indeed topical words.

Perhaps one thing about having quite stirring instead of silly words, albeit from another time, is that the airbrush isn’t taken out so often. On a quick squiz at the Wikipedia entry on the New Zealand national anthem, I can’t find any word airbrushing the way our anthem suffers every decade or so.

Still I guess that the word ‘Men’ above is pretty lucky it’s in the second verse. Otherwise, it would have been done for a fair while ago. I guess the Richard Dawkins squad will object to God getting a guernsey. But it’s fine with me. Indeed the business about “every creed” suggests a generous interpretation. It certainly seems to be OK with Māori who I presume don’t believe they have to be Christian or even monotheistic to get with the program. The English translation of the Māori words uses ‘God’ also – though I’ll quote the whole verse in that translation for your interest.

Let all people,
Red skin, white skin
Māori, Pākehā
Gather before you
May all our wrongs, we pray,
Be forgiven
So that we might say long live
Aotearoa

It’s also striking how frequently the words refer to staying out of trouble and war. Perhaps the source of this is partly that the New Zealanders acknowledge that their own nation was the product of two Māori wars – whereas we’ve had much more trouble acknowledging the equivalent in Australia.

Anyway, have a look at the lyrics of our own and the New Zealander’s national anthems. Both were written in the late 1870s and both were written as alternative national songs or perhaps anthems. There’s nothing in God Defend New Zealand as embarrassing and as plain badly written as this:

When gallant Cook from Albion sail’d,
To trace wide oceans o’er,
True British courage bore him on,
Til he landed on our shore.
Then here he raised Old England’s flag,
The standard of the brave;
“With all her faults we love her still”
“Britannia rules the wave.”
In joyful strains then let us sing,
Advance, Australia fair.

Finally, I’d be interested to hear in comments what national anthems you like and don’t. Here are some thoughts from me.

  • German national anthem – the tune has that fusion of aspiration and pathos I’m talking about above. WWII did kind of take the gloss off for some of us but.
  • South African – I find the tune haunting and very powerful – it speaks to me of the great struggle of modern South Africa. But that may be just me. Wikipedia suggests virtually all of its many bits were written long before the anti-apartheid struggle. Perhaps the fact that I hear its words as sounds rather than words with meaning infuses it with the associations that I bring to it – which are of the struggle to rise above the legacy of ancestors who took a wrong turn.
  • United States – the words are rather ornate, but exciting and stirring. The tune has some good moments, “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there” does it for me. A country with a sublime history.
  • The Internationale – wonderful tune. Great words. Pity, in hindsight about the tens of millions of lives it blighted or destroyed. Still, as Tom Lehrer put it “They may have won all the battles, but we had all the good songs.”
  • The Marseillaise: too triumphal, emotionally one dimensional. And if you want to get sentimental about revolutions, go with something from Les Mis. No wonder the French are so excitable.
  • British: Tune is dull and repetitive. The words are empty and silly.