Text: St. Bernard of Clarivaux (?) (c. 1091-1153)
Music: William Damon’s Booke of Musicke (1591)
Tune name: WINDSOR
While this hymn has long been attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, there has long been some doubt about his authorship. The Hymnal 1940 Companion notes: “Whatever its source, it remains one of the most moving expressions of medieval piety. Its basic theme is the love of the soul for God, beginning with an introduction which defines a sense of the mystic presence of God as the supreme joy of mankind.”
The original poem dates to about 1150, and had 42 stanzas. In the 15th century, nine additional stanzas were added when the poem came into general use as a devotional prayer. Our Hymnal includes the first three and the fifth stanzas from the original poem, and a final stanza which was added at a later date. The English translation is by Edward Caswall (1814-1878), an Anglican priest who was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1847. Our Hymnal includes eight of his translations from medieval Latin hymns.
1. Jesus, the very thought of thee
with sweetness fills my breast;
but sweeter far thy face to see,
and in thy presence rest.
2. No voice can sing, no heart can frame,
nor can the mem’ry find,
a sweeter sound than Jesus’ name,
The Saviour of mankind.
3. O hope of ev’ry contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
to those who fall, how kind thou art!
How good to those who seek!
4. But what to those who find? Ah, this
nor tongue nor pen can show;
the love of Jesus, what it is
none but his loved ones know.
5. Jesus, our only joy be thou,
as thou our prize wilt be;
In thee be thou our glory now,
and through eternity.
In our Hymnal, there are two tunes to this hymn, neither of which is the most common tune to which this text is usually sung (and there are several others that show up in various hymnals). That more popular tune (acknowledged in our Hymnal in small print under the 4th and 5th stanzas as an alternative tune) is ST. AGNES, to which we sing the Communion hymn “Shepherd of souls, refresh and bless” (#213). ST. AGNES was composed for use with “Jesus, the very thought of thee” in the late 19th century, and evokes a more Victorian form of piety than the 16th Century tune WINDSOR.
WINDSOR is an variation of a tune originally written around 1553 by the English composer Christopher Tye (c.1505–before 1573), who served as master of the choir at Ely Cathedral. and the music teacher of Edward VI.
We sing the hymn “My God, how wonderful thou art” (#284) to WINDSOR. Under the name DUNDIE, it was one of the “common tunes” used in the Scottish Psalter. It is mentioned by Robert Burns in his 1786 poem, The Cotter’s Saturday Night, where he contrasts some venerable Scots hymn-tunes with some of their foreign competitors:
The sweetest far of Scotia’s holy lays:
Compared with these, Italian trills are tame.
Below is Andrew Remillard’s rendition of this hymn on piano.