Celtic Hymns

In my final year of university a small group of choristers including myself sang a piece called A Gaelic Blessing by John Rutter. I became quite fond of the text and the musical setting, both of which I eventually had memorized.

The text reads:

Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace of Christ,
of Christ the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you.

I’ve tried to find out where this text came fromĀ and so far found nothing. It looks to me like it might be Rutter’s own work.

The features of the text are obvious and simple. It is very repetitive and formulaic. “Deep peace” is repeated several times and each line recalls images of nature. The entire text is some form of benediction and the text comes from a Christian tradition, albeit one not too stuffed with theology to appreciate nature.

I imagine the source material (or at least the inspiration for Rutter’s composition) is an oral tradition due to its memorable repetition. Putting oral traditions in print is not dissimilar to putting animals in formaldehyde. You’ll preserve their formĀ but they will die. Unlike animals in formaldehyde, you can bring words back to life by setting them to music.

So it’s with this formaldehyde-scented appreciation of the text’s genre that I went into this past Christmas. My parents bought me a book of “Celtic Devotions” by one Calvin Miller. I opened it and the first two stanzas I read are:

It were as easy for Jesu
To renew the withered tree
As to wither the new
Were it His will so to do.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!
Jesu! meet it were to praise Him.

There is no plant in the ground
But is full of his virtue,
There is no form in the strand
But is full of His blessing.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!
Jesu meet it were to praise Him.

Hey! thought I. I recognize this! The images of nature! The easily-memorable repetitions! This is begging to be set to music!

The poem has two more stanzas and the devotional has 29 more entries with 2 poems each. All sharing a love of nature and a love of patterns, a theme that should surprise anyone who has seen the vine and lattice styled decorations of illuminated manuscripts.

Of the devotional’s 60-odd poems, the majority are taken from an anthology called the Carmina Gadelica compiled by one Alexander Carmichael. It features 566 entries. I managed to get my hands on it. I think it will keep me busy for a while. Perhaps I’ll try making some of these dead frogs dance.

Edit: I am aware that Rutter’s lyrics were adapted from an existing source but I’m yet to find that source in its original form. Still searching.

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