Loosely based on the medieval Latin plainchant Ave Maris Stella, the hymn is generally sung to the modified traditional English melody Stella. This melody was published in 1851 by Henri Frederick Hemy in his "Easy Hymn Tunes for Catholic Schools". The name Stella comes from the village of that name near Newcastle-upon-Tyne where Hemy was the organist in a local church. According to one account, after playing the organ for evening benediction on Sunday at Stella, he called into the (old) Board Inn at the foot of Stella Lane with some companions and seated at the piano first played his rendition of the tune.
J. Vincent Higginson described it as "one of the oldest English vernacular hymns commonly found in Catholic hymnals."