History of Hymns: "Morning Has Broken"
"Morning Has Broken"
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 145
Morning has broken
Like the first morning;
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird.
Praise for the singing!
Praise for the morning!
Praise for them springing
Fresh from the Word!
Sometimes a melody provides the impetus for a hymn text. Percy Dearmer, editor of Songs of Praise (1931), requested a thanksgiving text from the poet Eleanor Farjeon to the lilting Gaelic tune BUNESSAN.
“Morning has broken” appeared first in the USA in the Presbyterian Hymnbook (1955), but it was not until Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) sang it on his triple platinum album Teaser and the Firecat in 1971 that the song became well known and, as a result, has been included in most hymnals since that time. This is a rare, though not unique, example of a Christian hymn receiving acclaim through the popular media.
Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) was born in Westminster, London, England. She was the daughter of a novelist and had around 80 works to her credit including Nursery Rhymes of London Town and The Glass Slipper. Farjeon received several awards for her literary efforts including the Carnegie Medal, the Hans Christian Anderson International Medal, and the Regina Medal.
The tune BUNESSAN demands a lesser-used poetic meter (dactylic) in threes. The result, according to British hymnologist J. R. Watson, is a “springy rhythm… [and a] beautifully sustained… poem [that] makes a delightful and charming morning hymn.”
UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young notes that the “text effectively links and expresses the creation stories in Genesis 1 and John 1, and reminds us that each new day is a gift from God.”
The morning sings in the sounds of the blackbird—an echo of the “Word” or the voice of the Incarnation itself.
The second stanza closes with a reference to God walking in Eden through the garden—“where his feet pass.” This is an echo of Genesis 3:8: “And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” There is, however, no hint in this idyllic account of the fall of humanity that follows in that verse.
The final stanza personalizes this experience. “Mine is the sunlight! Mine is the morning.” We share in the freshness and possibility of the “one light Eden saw play.” Our response is to “Praise with elation” for “God’s re-creation of the new day.”
It was first printed in Lachlan MacBean’s Songs and Hymns of the Gael (1888). The Revised Church Hymnary (1927) and the Appendix (1936) to the Irish Church Hymnal (1919) paired the tune with the nativity text, “Child in the manger” by the Scottish poet Mary MacDonald (1789-1872), who lived on the Isle of Mull and was born there near the village of Bunessan for which the tune is named.
At first glance, this “Morning has broken” may seem naïve in our current polluted environment of waning fresh water supplies, greenhouse gases and smog. Unlike the earlier days of the 20th century when Farjeon penned this poem, we now know that the earth’s resources are limited and its beauty is ours to preserve and foster. Yet, we all dream for a day when the beauty of the earth may be restored and that the rising of the morning sun will be a symbol of hope where all will share in the earth’s abundance.