"BE THOU MY VISION"
Arranged by Douglas Niedt
Free Guitar Sheet Music and Guitar Tab
The hymn, "Be Thou My Vision," is a Christian poem/prayer written by an Irish poet, probably in the 10th or 11th century, and set to the tune of "Slane," a melody with deep roots in the history of Ireland. Doug even arranged one of the verses as an Irish Slip-Jig to pay homage to the song's heritage.
Watch Douglas Niedt perform his guitar arrangement of "Be Thou My Vision"
but Doug also provides an easier version.
Here is page one in standard notation (it also comes in standard notation plus tab and tab only):
And here is page one of the easier version in standard notation (it also comes in standard notation plus tab and tab only):
Hints on Learning the Piece:
- Start with the original arrangement.
- If you come to a measure you have trouble playing, check the same measure in the "easier version."
- Many measures in the "easier version" also have alternative versions. Try those.
- With all these choices, you should be able to assemble a playable arrangement that will work for you.
It is in PDF format (55 pages!)
and contains the following items:
- "Be Thou My Vision" arranged and fingered by Douglas Niedt in standard notation.
- The same in standard notation plus tab.
- The same in tab only.
- "Be Thou My Vision"—The Easier Version, in standard notation.
- The Easier Version in standard notation plus tab.
- The Easier Version in tab only.
- Essay: The Story Behind "Be Thou My Vision"
- Notation Key
The Story Behind "Slane," the Melody of "Be Thou My Vision"
The melody to "Be Thou My Vision" is called "Slane," a tune with deep roots in the history of Ireland. Many believe the melody was written in commemoration of St. Patrick’s lighting a celebratory fire on Slane Hill on Easter Eve in defiance of King Lóegaire, the High King of Ireland. Here is the story:
In 433 AD, St. Patrick came to Slane Hill in County Meath. It was the night before Easter, as well as the beginning of the Spring Equinox. King Lóegaire mac Néill of Tara had issued a decree that no fires were to be lit until the lighting of the blaze atop nearby Tara Hill that would usher in a pagan festival celebrating the Spring Equinox. The first fire, however, was not that of King Lóegaire. Instead, it was a flame lit by St. Patrick in defiance of the pagan ritual and instead to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. An altercation ensued with the local Druids, and one was killed. The King sent out forces to round up St. Patrick and his followers and have them brought before him to be executed. Instead of executing him, King Lóegaire was so impressed by St. Patrick’s devotion (and his willingness to risk his life in defying a powerful king) that the King allowed him to continue with missionary work throughout Ireland.
Some writers associate the Saint Patrick story with inspiring the "Be Thou My Vision" poem or prayer (the lyrics). But I think if there is any connection at all, it would be to the melody "Slane" rather than the words of the poem. Other scholars attribute "Slane" to 4th-century monks at one of the earliest monasteries in Ireland on the Hill of Slane.
The melody was first published by Patrick Weston Joyce (1827-1914) in his 1909 collection, Old Irish Folk Music and Songs: A Collection of 842 Airs and Songs hitherto unpublished, under the title, "With My Love on the Road." The tune has also been associated with a song called "The Banks of the Bann."
Irish liturgy scholar Helen Phelan, a lecturer at the University of Limerick, writes, "There is a longstanding practice of 'editorial weddings' in Irish liturgical music, where traditional tunes were wedded to more liturgically appropriate texts."
In this case, Eleanor Hull published a versified translation of the Christian poem "Be Thou My Vision" in 1912. When Leopold Dix (1861-1935) coupled the lovely traditional Irish tune "Slane" with Hull's translation in the Irish Church Hymnal in 1919, the hymn's popularity was sealed.
Origin of the Words to "Be Thou My Vision."
Hymns have been an integral part of religious worship for centuries. Among the vast repertoire of hymns, few possess the enduring power and beauty of "Be Thou My Vision." During the Early Christian period in Ireland, monasticism flourished, and religious communities valued their connection to God through prayer and contemplation. "Be Thou My Vision" emerged from this rich spiritual tradition, embodying the deep desire for God's guidance and wisdom.
Tradition Attributes the Words to Saint Dallán (variously 530-598 or 560-640)
Eochaid mac Colla, better known as Saint Dallán or Dallán Forgaill (Old Irish: Dallán Forchella), was an early Christian Irish poet and saint who for many years was believed to be the writer of the prayer or poem, "Rop Tú Mo Baile," the basis of the modern English hymn, "Be Thou My Vision."
Eochaid was better known as Dallán Furgail. The word "dallan" means "little blind one." Dallan earned this nickname after supposedly losing his sight from intense study.
In the late 6th and early 7th century, poetry and education were gaining massive importance in Ireland. Born into a noble family, Furgail "was early recognized as the royal poet and greatest scholar in Ireland" (A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, 1877). He distinguished himself despite his blindness. He excelled in the study of poetry, literature, and theology. Reflect on this—a blind man penned the poem/prayer that would ultimately become "Be Thou My Vision."
That’s a Beautiful Story, But…
Dr. Chris Fenner of the Hymnlogy Archive points out that "Although the original Old Irish text, 'Rop tú mo Baile,’ is often attributed to Saint Dallán Forgaill, who lived in the 6th century, scholars believe it was written later than that. Some date it to the 8th century; others put it as late as the 10th or 11th century."
"Although this Irish text is sometimes attributed to Saint Dallan Forgaill (c. 530–598), the manuscript record reflects linguistic nuances more consistent with the Early Middle Irish period, 10th or 11th century." (emphasis mine)
Dr. Fenner goes on to tell us that there are three surviving manuscripts. Two are in the Royal Irish Academy, but one is regarded as a careless transcript of the other. The third was discovered in 1931 within the holdings of collector Thomas Phillipps (no. 7022) and is now housed in the National Library of Ireland. That copy was transcribed and translated by Monica Nevin in Éigse, vol. 2 (1940), pp. 114–116.
Here is the 16th-century manuscript from the Royal Irish Academy:
Here it is in modern typography:
In the early 1900s, Mary E. Byrne, a Dublin native, was a college student at the National University in Ireland. In her studies, she came across this manuscript of the poem, written in Old Irish. In 1905, she published her literal English translation of the moving work in Ériu: The Journal of the School of Irish Learning, vol. 2 (1905), pp. 89–91. Although imperfect, her translation brought these profound words from a thousand years ago into our lives today.
Her translation reads:
Scholar Helen Phelan points out how the language of this hymn is drawn from traditional Irish culture: "One of the essential characteristics of the text is the use of 'heroic' imagery to describe God. This was very typical of medieval Irish poetry, which cast God as the 'chieftain' or 'High King' (Ard Ri) who provided protection to his people or clan. The lorica is one of the most popular forms of this kind of protection prayer and is very prevalent in texts of this period."
It is at this point that Eleanor Hull (1860-1935) enters the story. Born in Manchester, England, she founded the Irish Text Society and was president of the Irish Literary Society of London. Hull versified the text, and "A Prayer" was included in her Poem Book of the Gael, published in 1912.
Hull published the "Prayer" in twelve rhyming couplets:
From there, it was adopted into the Irish Church Hymnal (1919), with alterations:
Dr. Fenner of the Hymnology Archive notes, "In hymn collections, the third stanza, 'Be thou my breastplate,’ is sometimes omitted, but this omission is unfortunate for a couple of reasons. First, Irish hymns such as this one belong to a tradition of song called lorica, songs of protection, or sometimes called breastplate songs. Second, the biblical allusion to the armor of God is lost (Eph. 6:10–18, Is. 59:17, etc.), and by extension, the idea of spiritual warfare. Whenever possible, this stanza should be included for biblical and traditional reasons. Hull’s text is often adjusted by hymnal compilers in various ways to account for the irregularity of her poetic meter."
Following the original publication in Ireland, the hymn was included in several British hymnals. After World War II, the hymn came to the attention of hymnal editors in the U.S. It has become a standard hymn in most hymnals today.
Over the years, "Be Thou My Vision" has undergone various musical interpretations and arrangements. Numerous artists, from classical musicians to contemporary worship bands, have put their unique stamp on the hymn, breathing new life into its ancient verses. This versatility has allowed the hymn to remain relevant and accessible to diverse musical tastes, ensuring its continued popularity in modern worship settings.
Hymns have been an integral part of religious worship for centuries. Among the vast repertoire of hymns, few possess the enduring power and beauty of "Be Thou My Vision." The beloved hymn's profound lyrics, deep devotion, simplicity, and melodic grace have captured the hearts and souls of countless worshippers, inspiring and uplifting believers around the world.
The spiritual impact of "Be Thou My Vision" has reverberated through generations of believers, resonating deeply with its timeless message to seek God's vision in all aspects of our lives. The hymn's powerful yet poignant verses, blending a plea for divine guidance with an unwavering commitment to the Almighty, continue to offer solace and encouragement to those individuals seeking spiritual strength, guidance, and a deeper connection with the divine.
The old Irish hymn "Be Thou My Vision" is a favorite of many, but the way most Americans sing it weakens the poetic parallelism of the original.
The beloved poem was originally written in Old Irish. Notice the repetition of "Rop" in the original verses below:
Rop tú mo baile, a Choimdiu cride:
ní ní nech aile acht Rí secht nime.
Rop tú mo scrútain i l-ló 's i n-aidche;
rop tú ad-chëar im chotlud caidche.
Rop tú mo labra, rop tú mo thuicsiu;
rop tussu dam-sa, rob misse duit-siu.
Rop tussu m’athair, rob mé do mac-su;
rop tussu lem-sa, rob misse lat-su.
Rop tú mo chathscíath, rop tú mo chlaideb;
rop tussu m’ordan, rop tussu m’airer.
Rop tú mo dítiu, rop tú mo daingen;
rop tú nom-thocba i n-áentaid n-aingel. . . .
The Old Irish word "rop" is the word for "be," and the repetition of this direct address to God asking that he be to us various things (Lord, all, best thought, light, wisdom, word, etc.) poetically emphasizes our need of him and what he is for us.
When Mary Byrne translated the Old Irish fairly literally into English in 1905, she retained this poetic parallelism. Here are just the first few verses:
Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart
None other is aught but the King of the seven heavens.
Be thou my meditation by day and night.
May it be thou that I behold even in my sleep.
Be thou my speech, Be thou my understanding.
Be thou with me, Be I with thee
Be thou my father, Be I thy son.
Mayst thou Be mine, may I Be thine.
Be thou my battle-shield, Be thou my sword.
Be thou my dignity, Be thou my delight.
Be thou my shelter, Be thou my stronghold.
Mayst thou raise me up to the company of the angels. . . .
Eleanor Hull versified Byre’s translation in 1912 so that it could be easily sung. However, when she did so, Hull failed to retain the repetition of "be." In her defense, she does begin each of the first three stanzas with it and includes one other occurrence in stanza three and one at the end, but her rendering doesn’t retain the level of poetic parallelism of either the original or Byrne’s translation:
Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.
Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.
There is another version of Hull’s versification, however, that does a better job, in my opinion, of retaining the incessant cry for the Lord to be to us what we need. I didn’t dig too deeply, but as far as I can tell, the oldest appearance of this version is the 1986 The New English Hymnal. I have several recordings of English choirs singing this version, so my guess is that it has caught on in England.
Notice how this alteration retains the repetition of "be" throughout:
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
Be all else but naught to me, save that thou art,
Be thou my best thought in the day and the night,
Both waking and sleeping, thy presence my light.
Be thou my wisdom, Be thou my true word
Be thou ever with me, and I with thee, Lord,
Be thou my great Father, and I thy true son,
Be thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one.
Be thou my breastplate, my sword for the fight,
Be thou my whole armor, Be thou my true might,
Be thou my soul’s shelter, Be thou my strong tower,
O raise thou me heavenward, great Power of my power.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Be thou my inheritance now and always,
Be thou and thou only the first in my heart,
O Sovereign of heaven, my treasure thou art.
High King of heaven, thou heaven’s bright Sun,
O grant me its joys after victory is won,
Great Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be thou my vision, O Ruler of all.
This version also changes the hymnic meter from 10.10.10.10 to 10.11.11.11., which I think is also actually easier to sing with the tune most commonly used for the text, "Slane."
Dr. Chris Fenner of the Hymnology Archive
Dr. Aniol, Executive Vice President, and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries.
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