Be Thou My Vision
By A.C Bridges
(Originally printed in The ARP Magazine February 1977)
Trinity (Revised) #642
The Hymn-of-the-Month is a hymn which is found as No. 303 in THE HYMNBOOK and as No. 116 in SONGS FOR CHRISTIAN WORSHIP, “Be Thou My Vision.” It is not found in the TRINITY HYMNAL, and it is a comparative newcomer to hymnals in use in America. When the writer first began seeing this hymn it was found in hymnals used by youth, but now it is in the current Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist hymnals in use in our area. However, it has been in use in British hymnals for a longer period of time. Its first appearance as a hymn was in the revised CHURCH HYMNARY printed in Edinburg, Scotland in 1927, a book prepared for the Presbyterian Churches of Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, whose musical editor was Dr. David Evans who arranged the tune to which our hymn-of-the-month is sung.
I have not found many comments on the meaning of the hymn, but if one studies the hymn and assumes that the author has in mind Jesus Christ, God’s Son, as his Vision, the Lord of his heart, his Wisdom, his true Word, High King of Heaven, and Ruler of all, it surely could be used as a hymn of consecration. The third stanza is a declaration that the singer is not dependent on riches nor man’s empty praise for his sustenance, but that the Lord is his ‘Inheritance, now and always’ and his ‘Treasure.’ The final stanza is a prayer that when he has finished his course on earth he may reach heaven’s joys and that the Lord will still be his Vision.
We do not know who originated this hymn, but it is said to be an ancient Irish poem probably dating from the eighth century. Mary Byrne made a translation of it into English prose and it was first published in ERIN (Vol. II, 1905). Miss Byrne was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1880 and died there in 1931. She was educated at the Dominican Convent in Dublin and graduated from the National University of Ireland in 1905. She became a research worker in the Board of Intermediate Education and was one of the compilers of the CATALOGUE of the Royal Irish Academy. She contributed both to the OLD AND MID-IRISH DICTIONARY and the DICTIONARY OF THE IRISH LANGUAGE. It is not surprising that she received the Chancellor’s Gold Medal in the Royal University in recognition of her work on the Chaucerian Period of English literature.
After Miss Byrne had translated the poem into English prose Miss Eleanor Hull put the prose into English verse. Someone has said that no one is more competent than Miss Hull to portray the religious longing of the ancient people. Miss Hull was born in Manchester, England in 1860 and died in London in 1935. She was the daughter of an eminent geologist and was one of the founders of the Irish Text Society and for some time Secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society. She served as President of the Irish Literary Society of London and contributed to several publications and books on Irish history and literature.
It seems that Miss Hull’s original hymn was made up of twelve couplets, but none of them are ever printed in full in hymnals nor exactly as she wrote them. THE HYMNBOOK prints eight couplets in four stanzas. One writer has said of the hymn that it ‘reflects the deep inner peace and satisfaction of those who have found and followed Christ as a Vision leading on over obstacles and as Wisdom that safely guides to earth’s victory and heaven’s joys.’
The tune to which the hymn is set in all the books the writer has seen is “Slane,” a traditional Irish melody from Patrick W. Joyce’s OLD IRISH FOLK MUSIC AND SONGS (1909) set to the text, “With my love on the road.” Erik Routley, the famous British hymnologist and now teaching at Princeton says of the tune: “It is a captivating tune, very popular with young people.” The tune appeared in the revised CHURCH HYMNARY published in Edinburg, Scotland in 1927, of which Dr. David Evans was the Musical Editor. The tune apparently received its name from a hill named Slane some ten miles from Tara in County Meath where Ireland’s patron saint, Patrick (c. 389-461) ‘ lit the paschal fire on Easter Eve, challenging King Loegaire’. The tune is said to be truly Irish and that to those with Irish Presbyterian ancestry it will become increasingly dear.
Dr. David Evans, the arranger of the tune and the musical editor of the CHURCH HYMNARY, 1927, and whose name appears quite often in matters relating to hymnology, was born in Wales in 1874 and died in 1948. He was educated at Arnold College; University College, Cardiff; and Oxford University where he received the Doctor of Music degree. For more than thirty years he was Professor of Music at University College, Cardiff and was recognized as the outstanding Welsh musician of his day. He was a leading conductor of the great Welsh singing festivals and was a composer of choral and orchestral works.
In THE HYMNBOOK Dr. Evans is given credit for harmonizing nine tunes, including the Gaelic melody which has been popular in recent years set to the words, “Morning has Broken.” An original tune of his is in THE HYMNBOOK also entitled “Charterhouse,” No. 217. In the TRINITY HYMNAL there will be found one of his original tunes, “Kirkland,” No. 208. One interesting tune found in both books is “Nyland,” which is a traditional Finnish melody arranged by Dr. Evans. It is found in THE HYMNBOOK set to the hymn, “In Heavenly Love Abiding,” No. 417, and in the TRINITY HYMNAL it is used for PSALM 65, and found as No. 306.
To listen to the hymn, click here.