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 in the 8th century. 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 fairly literally the Old Irish 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. You can listen to one such instance here:
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.
We chose to use this versification in Hymns to the Living God since it better communicates our constant need of God so beautifully pictured in the original Irish and English translation.