Be Thou My Vision: what are the lyrics and who wrote the hymn?

5 May 2023, 08:48 | Updated: 18 September 2023, 16:28

Solo soprano sings 'Be Thou my Vision', King Charles’ favourite hymn

Classic FM

By Classic FM

Discover the history and lyrics of ‘Be Thou My Vision’ – one of the world’s oldest hymns with origins in 6th-century Ireland, which is said to be a favourite of King Charles’.

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One of the United Kingdom’s most popular hymns, ‘Be Thou My Vision’ is a traditional Christian hymn with Irish origins.

The text is based on a Middle Irish poem most attributed to Dallán Forgaill, an early Christian Irish poet born in 530AD. Since the early 20th century, the text has been sung to an Irish folk tune, known in church hymnals as ‘Slane’.

Today, ‘Be Thou My Vision’ is often heard at both weddings and funerals, as well as Sunday church services across the United Kingdom. It is said to be a favourite of King Charles, and a newly set version of the hymn was performed at his coronation service at Westminster Abbey.

Read more: The 15 greatest hymns of all time

Be Thou My Vision has Irish origins – pictured, Letterkenny cathedral in Donegal, Ireland
Be Thou My Vision has Irish origins – pictured, Letterkenny cathedral in Donegal, Ireland. Picture: Getty

What are the lyrics to ‘Be Thou My Vision’?

There are two slightly differing versions of the lyrics – one appears in most Irish and Scottish hymnals, and the other in English books. The below lyrics are the words most commonly found in the New English Hymnal.

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 armour, 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 vain, empty praise
Be Thou mine inheritance, now and always
Be Thou and Thou only the first in my heart
O high King 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.

Read more: What are the lyrics and history to ‘Abide with Me’?

The lyrics to 'Be Thou My Vision' date back to 6th century Ireland
The lyrics to 'Be Thou My Vision' date back to 6th century Ireland. Picture: Alamy

Who wrote ‘Be Thou My Vision’?

‘Be Thou My Vision’ is based on a 6th-century poem by Irish poet Dallán Forgaill, ‘Rop tum o Baile’.

In 1905, Forgaill’s Gaelic words were translated into English by Irish linguist and journalist, Mary Byrne. Seven years later Eleanor Hull, a scholar in Old Irish, adapted Byrne’s English translation into verse, giving us the lyrics most commonly sung today.

Christened ‘Eochaidh’, the poet Forgaill later earned the nickname ‘Dallán’, which translates to ‘little blind one’, after he lost his sight.

Read more: Who composed Jerusalem and is it a national anthem?

Who composed the melody to ‘Be Thou My Vision’?

The hymn’s text is accompanied by a melody known as ‘Slane’, a folk tune composed by Patrick Joyce and first attached to ‘Be Thou My Vision’ in the Irish Church Hymnal in 1919. 

The melody’s name is inspired by the sacred site of Slane in Ireland, near the ancient hill of Tara, where saint Patrick lit the first fires of Easter as a stand against King Laoghaire.