While I was pondering which hymn to feature next, the decision was made for me when one of my favorite men’s quartets recorded the definitive version of it just the other day.
If I were to quote the lyrics of “Be Thou My Vision” as it was originally written, you wouldn’t understand a word of it, because it was originally written as an Old Irish poem. Its exact date and authorship is speculative, and some attribute it to a 6th century saint. However, the woman who translated and versified it in the English form known today was Eleanor Hull, in 1912. There were many more verses in the original Irish than you will hear in a single English version. Among English versions today, you’ll typically hear “the standard four,” but occasionally, a lesser-known verse shows up. Here’s one revived by Revelation Trio (a great version, though not the one I chose for The Definitive):
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.
The tune is very simple and a bit repetitive, which might begin to try the patience if arranged without some variety from verse to verse. I personally find that it doesn’t really get old. The ancient prayer is perfectly translated and fits the tune like a glove. It cuts through all the kitsch and the price tags and the baggage that have glommed themselves onto Christianity over the years and strips everything down to the essential elements: father and son, son and father.
English translations of the standard verses also vary slightly, most notably the last verse. We actually don’t typically use Hull’s translation here. Her version ran:
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.
The better-known translation is commonly referred to as the “English Methodist version,” from 1964:
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.
As you can see, they’re quite similar, but Hull’s has a few more syllables. I personally am fond of the phrase “great heart,” but I can understand the choice to cut the syllable. There’s another variant at the end of verse three, which typically reads “High king of heaven, my treasure thou art,” but in another translation reads “Sovereign of heaven, my treasure thou art.” Again, I like the twist, which in this case has a clever double meaning—a “sovereign” is also a form of currency.
You’ll hear Hull’s original last verse and a few other variants like this in my personal favorite version, which is (drum roll please) the High Kings, acapella. It was just recorded for a television special, and of all the takes on the hymn that I’ve heard, this is at once the purest and the most fresh-sounding. Upon hearing it for the first time, I promptly hit replay, then hit replay again. The men tackle the hymn with bold, clear strokes, but there’s a world of complexity in their rich four-part harmony. Featured soloists are Brian Dunphy, Darren Holden and Finnbar Clancy, respectively. Holden also carries the tenor part. If you listen carefully after his solo on verse two, that’s his voice switching immediately from baritone step-out to high harmony. This is an excellent example of why both he and Dunphy are two of my favorite working vocalists today. Manly singing in the center of the tone. It’s all I ask. If you’d like to be introduced more properly to the High Kings, I’ve written a long piece on them here.
If you’d like to be introduced more properly to the High Kings, I’ve written a long piece on them here, which also examines the parallel heritages of folk music and gospel quartet music.