God defend New Zealand


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.
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15 Responses to God defend New Zealand

  1. Chris Lloyd says:

    I am not sure that the subsequent verses of our anthem are worth parsing. Most of us hardly know the words to the first verse – which is a source of national pride for me! Actually, I quite like the tune. But the German one is way better. Nina Hagen I think did a version of it back in the 80s. I saw her perform it at the Crystal Ballroom.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Chris

      I forgot to mention that it being a matter of national pride that we don’t know the words to our anthem is certainly a matter of pride to me.

      It puts me in mind of a speech the aboriginal painter, the late great Lin Onus gave I think to the National Press Club which I’ve never been able to track down. But he told a story of his (I think) 14 year old son thinking that one of the lines in our national anthem is “Our land abounds in nature strips” which I think is magnificent.

      Sometimes you hear something which you know chimes with the sense of humour of someone you know. I that case I think of your father Alan who I think would have dined out on that line :)

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        I just found the passage

        I’d like to quote what I think is a wonderful example of misundstanding. My son in primary school learned the national anthem and he was most anxious to come home and sing the national anthem that he had learned at school. It turns out no one gave him the words but he was picking this up from the big kids: Australia is full of ostriches for we are young and free with golden soil and welcome joy our home is skirt by sea. Our land abounds in nature strips of beauty rich and rare. In this respect the pastries fresh advance Australia fare. That’s about misunderstanding and what I am proposing is that we all should make that effort to understand each other and what we do.
        Lin Onus, The Urban Dingo – Awaye

        I’ve downloaded the radio program it’s from and will listen to it again.

    • derrida derider says:

      “But the German one is way better. ”
      Especially as it’s not German at all – the very Austrian Josef Haydn first used the tune in one of his string quartets, then set words to it which were then stolen for “God Save the Queen” (“Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser …”).

      Of course none can match La Marseillaise for lyrics. Any song that urges its listeners to fill their ditches with the enemy’s mongrel blood gets my vote.

      The lyrics of “Advance Australia Fair” are so bad, even discarding the absurd later verses, that there was a serious push when the tune was adopted as our national anthem just to make it wordless, as many nations do. Against that the tune is boring but – importantly for an anthem – easy for a crowd to sing, as “God Defend New Zealand” is. The Stars and Stripes is dreadful from this point of view (ever listen to people trying to sing “and the rocket’s red glaaaare”?).

  2. Alan says:

    An anthem should be singable. The Brits first considered Zadok the Priest, but it needs a professional choir and orchestra to work. Zadok would have met your requirements, but think about it being performed by the Upper Middle Bogan public school band. That’s a problem, although not as dramatic, for the Star-Spangled Banner.

    I am fond of Kimigayo.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Just listened to Kimigayo – very nice. Very Japanese.

      • Alan says:

        The lyrics date to the Heian period (794—1185). The music was composed in 1880 during the Meiji restoration. It’s controversial because for its association with the militarist regime in the 1930s and 40s but apparently the argument is fading.

  3. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    It ain’t hard to better our woeful anthem.

    The rather like the Frogs anthem. I could sing it at the world cup if I was a frog

  4. paul frijters says:

    I actually dont mind the lyrics to the Australian anthem. Very inclusive, calling on people around the world to join in with getting rich and becoming glorious as a nation. Compare that to the European anthems, which often speak of ethnicity, some enemy, particular religiosity, bloodlines, and permanency. Australia could do worse!

  5. R. N. England says:

    The German anthem started life as “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser” in 1797, in the last days of the Vienna-based German Empire. It originated in a discussion between Josef Haydn and Gottfried van Swieten, that giant of European culture who invented concerts of music by composers no longer living, was the first enforcer of silence amongst concert audiences, ran the magnificent Hofburg Library, and was the only bigwig to turn up at Mozart’s funeral. There is a good article on “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser” in Wikipedia. It is worth clicking on the link in the Wikipedia article to John Newton, who wrote the words we were most likely to have sung to Haydn’s tune (and also to “Amazing Grace”). Newton began life as a pressed seaman, became a slave-trader and then a slave himself, and finally rector of St Mary Woolnoth, the Hawksmoor church in Lombard St. not far from the Bank of England.

    The best version of the anthem I know can be heard by searching ” Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser Elly Ameling” on Google. The accompanying video is a miserable distraction, though.

  6. zilla says:

    I love our anthem so much, for the reason you mention above Nicholas, it is utterly uninspiring of daft nationalism. Here is my loose translation

    (White) Australians be glad!
    We have a country now and we are not slaves*;
    Our dirt is good and makes us rich;
    We have beaches everywhere how good is that;
    Did we mention the bit about the dirt being good
    Even if most of the animals are a bit weird, except the sheep obvz
    So keep writing this down:
    Carn Australia
    Now belt it out too:
    Carn Australia

    * actual Pacific islander slaves please bugger off home now tks

  7. Suhit says:

    Nice article. It goes goes to the point of a national anthem and the value it creates.

    For me coming from India, the Indian anthem has always given me a sense of pride for the nation, goosebumps at the right moments like Independence day and a fantastic set of lyrics and tune to sing.

    This is one of the versions.
    https://youtu.be/IPIcaPgSZsA

    There are tons of versions as Indians love their music and create it

  8. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Someone responded on my mailing list to which I sent this out

    You should listen to the Netherlands National Anthem. (“ Wilhelmus”)
    It is very old and majestic. Beethoven wrote variations on its theme. The words are peculiar and historical. But it is splendid without being warlike.

    Having listened to it – its tune is magnificent.

  9. My dad used to sing “Our land abounds in nature strips”. He wasn’t wrong.

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