Poetic inversion in all of us command

Originally published in Active Voice, the national newsletter of Editors Canada

Our anthem has been updated! It’s gotten royal assent! If you haven’t yet, you will need to get used to singing “true patriot love in all of us command.” And, perhaps less frequently, to hearing people complain about the change.

Some will contest the grammar: “Shouldn’t it be ‘in all of our command’?” And some will fulminate against the perceived “political correctness”: “It’s an inversion of the natural order!” Both sets of people are off base, but – inadvertently – the second set have the answer to the first set’s complaint. It is an inversion… but a grammatical one.

Here’s the old version: “O Canada, our home and native land, True patriot love in all thy sons command.” What don’t you see there? An apostrophe on sons. It’s not a possessive! The sentence is an imperative – a command (fittingly). It addresses Canada (the O gives that away), says it’s our home and native land, and then tells Canada, “command true patriot love in all thy sons.” Only because it’s an anthem, and it’s in a formal register, and it’s poetry, it moves the verb to the end to make it work with the metre and rhyme.

This is something we ought to learn in school: poetic inversion, or anastrophe if you like twenty-dollar Greek terms. Poetry often made use of it when end-rhymes were in vogue: “‘Sir,’ said I, ‘or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore’” is from Poe’s “The Raven”; “Else the Puck a liar call” is from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You occasionally find it in other national anthems; Nigeria’s has the line “Arise, O compatriots, Nigeria’s call obey.” But for our own times, with free verse in the ascendancy, we’re more likely to hear anastrophe from Yoda: “Begun the Clone War has.”

The grammatical confusion is no surprise; you can’t hear the lack of apostrophe. But if it were “all thy sons’ command” – and now “all of our command” – the sentence would have no verb; command would be a noun. As it is, it’s not saying that true patriot love actually is in all of our command; it’s an imprecation, fervently wishing that Canada command true patriot love in all who sing the anthem.

Is the phrasing awkward? Very. Could it be rewritten better? Much. Would a larger change ever get through parliament? I sincerely doubt it.

Anyway, we can’t let mishearings win the day. If we did, the French anthem might declare that Canada’s valour has been fooled twice and will protect our hearths and fingers: “Et ta valeur, deux fois trompée, protegera nos foyers et nos doigts.”* Nope. Won’t get fooled again.


*The original is “Et ta valeur, de foi trempée, protegera nos foyers et nos droits”: “And your valour, steeped in faith, will protect our homes and rights.”

7 responses to “Poetic inversion in all of us command

  1. Typo: “in all they sons” (feel free to delete this when fixed)

  2. (And the 1908 lyrics, this report says, was gender-neutral and was not an imperative.) https://globalnews.ca/news/4002268/oh-canada-originally-gender-neutral/

  3. Australia’s national anthem originally began “Australia’s sons let us rejoice” but now has the gender neutral “Australians all let us rejoice” (a bit of inversion there?). The original also had a verse beginning “When gallant Cook from Albion sailed …” and ending “With all her faults we love her still, Britannia rules the wave!” – now mercifully deleted.

  4. Hi James,
    You have provided an interesting overview. Linguistic questions aside, it should be possible to love our country without a deity tagging along to legitimize the process.
    While the original, French version of the anthem had religious overtones, as did several of the early English versions, the anthem I was taught to sing made no mention of God keeping our land free. As someone pointed out in a different column, why should we all sing to someone else’s imaginary friend?
    South of the border, ” One nation under God” was only added to the pledge of allegiance in the 1950s, as a response to communism. Many of the Founding Fathers were not traditional Christians. With the current level of atheists and agnostics combined, in the United States, likely around twenty percent, that implies a significant level of hypocrisy. It seems reasonable to assume that there are quite a few atheists and agnostics amongst that country’s elected officials.
    Kind regards,
    Alan Sidorov

  5. God of nation’s
    At thy feet
    In the bond’s of love we meet. Thank you for the tip. A sprinkling of the curly ones would improve our NZ anthem no end.

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