Saturday, August 2, 2008

Be Thou My Vision

"Be Thou my Vision" is one of my favourite folk songs. It’s Irish and its words were written by one Dalln Forgaill in the 8th century, but were translated into English and versified in the early Twentieth Century by Mary E.Byrne and Eleanor Hull. As for its music (a tinny version of which can be heard here), it is of unknown ancient folkish provenance, or so I believe.

I have to confess to a dastardly terrible vice. I am moved on occasions (though not often) to playfully interfere with the lyrical integrity of songs not my own (I have no songs of my own). I am presuming, perhaps incorrectly, that as long as I do not make any money out of such violence, I am not going to have my ass sued to hell and back? Especially if a certain sufficient number of decades have passed since the composition, or the death of the author, in any case? Anyway, I would always in no way presume that any alterations I made had been attempts to either supplant or claim an objective superiority over the original. Only, rather, that they were different songs. Ok, relying on the same music, but not as such an attack on the original, if this lawyerly wind-baggery makes sense and persuades.

Anyway, here are the first two stanzas of the famous
“Be Thou my Vision”:

"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."

Good lyrics. And for a hymn, acceptably rid of grovelling sanctimoniousness and sentimental effeteness. Still, it is nothing if not ‘old fashioned’ (shock horror! I sense my traditionalist readers, Griff and Reynard, reacting?). I should make myself clear that what I sometimes react to with hesitation about the ‘old fashioned’ in general, is not that it is rooted in the past or that it fails to be enthusiastic about our modernist obsessions with the Brave New World of the 21st century; but rather that it can be merely inaccessible. For what, pray, is the purpose of communication, if it is to be stifled by inaccessibility?

Beyond the form, I am also less keen on the content than I could be.

For example “Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.”

This particular line seems to express very unambiguously something which I consider - in all my boundlessly unauthorized subjectivity - to be an erroneous understanding of the desired effects of Christian devotion upon the life of the Self. The life of the Self, that is, in the context of the world, and most especially, of other people. It is stating, after all, that nothing should be important to the Christian believer except God.

Hmmmmmmm…? Are we sure that this is what the Christian life is about? I had thought that the point and purpose of being a Christian was to be a light in the world, to love and serve your fellow men, be they your friends or your enemies? While I would never deny that such a love, being essentially unnatural, is impossible to achieve with much efficacy, without the transfiguring effects of God’s indwelling love active and shining within you, I would also suggest that maintaining that God alone is important to the Christian could tend to undermine, if not potentially contradict, such an understanding?

Secondly, in the second verse, we see a beautiful expression of the intimate relationship that exists between God the Father and the Christian believer as that believer partakes of the Sonship through his identification with Christ. I have no objections to this at all. I only wonder if a rhapsodic Hymn such as this is, is the best place for the expression of an esoteric theological truth that may in no way be accessible or believable to a non-Christian, who might indeed even be alienated by the expression of such an abstract strangeness. “What on Earth are they talking about”, is a thought that might arise, I’m thinking, when they sing or hear this song.

So what, you may think. So what if they don't understand? But is such a question really one to ask when the effective celebration of the transcendent is at stake? Or are you advancing the cause of a kind of Christian hermeticism, a Christian isolation from worldly relevance?

And so with trepidation and a robust desire not to rouse the spirit of Diall Forghill in acts of haunting vengeance against me, or that of his accomplished translator Mary Byrne and versifier Eleanor Hull, I humbly offer up an alternative version of the first two stanzas, which I myself, nevertheless, shamelessly prefer. Isn’t it weird the way we are not supposed to like our creative, or should I say in this case re-creative, acts?.

Be assured, I make no claims as regards its objective quality or worth. It is if nothing else simpler and more repetitious in its use of 'Be thou' as a refrain. While I can sense that some might feel it to be ‘wet’ (especially non-Christians) this is not what I intend it to be.

"Be thou my vision, be thou my true light
Be thou ever with me, and keep me at night
Be thou my saviour, be thou my delight
Be thou my energy, in the midst of the fight.

Be thou my wisdom, be thou my true light
Be thou revelation, in the darkness of night
Be thou my splendour, be thou my delight
Be thou my happiness, and the love in my life."

NB..see comments

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

My version is not, as I say, to seek to discredit or trash or mock the original.

I suppose what it really is ties in with, if I’m to be honest, a question I have often asked myself. Just as Ezekiel asked of the dead bones in the desert: “Can these bones live?”, might we also be permitted to ask a similar question of the life and splendour locked up in our literary heritage. Given that our literary canon, even though its contents did indeed possess a resonant life in themselves when they shone in the freshness of their own contemporary settings, today too often lies dead in the affective, aesthetic sensibility and responsiveness of the modern soul; given that, can we indeed persuade ourselves to ask: Can these words live? Or how can they live?

I am aware, in advance, both of the potentially perceived ‘Philistine’ consequences of what I say, and of the tremendous arrogance that may be considered to attach to a mere upstart TEFL teacher in this way fiddling with the greatness of the past.

All that I can say in my defence are two things.

Firstly, that the worship of art and of religious literary forms in and of themselves is surely idolatry, since it is what burns inside these forms, not the sheer exoteric form in themselves, that matters.

And secondly that my version may indeed be objective pants, and that, in any case, I do not question the value, quality and integrity of the original.