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"All Things Bright and Beautiful"
Hymn of the Week
Many of the old hymnals have sections with songs especially for children, and though they may sound a little sweet to our ears, why shouldn’t children enjoy what’s sweet? The bitter will come all too soon. So thought one of the most prolific of hymn-writers in the Victorian age, Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander, to whom we owe the wonderful carol “Once in Royal David’s City,” and the simple and deeply moving hymn for Passiontide, “There is a Green Hill Far Away.” Our current Hymn of the Week is a bright and sprightly song celebrating a world of wonder from a child’s eyes, and one sign of its popularity was that the gentle veterinarian James Herriot used lines from it as titles for his collections of stories, some of which you may have seen from the old BBC television series, All Creatures Great and Small.
Now, Mrs. Alexander got that line, “all creatures great and small,” from Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” one of our Poetry Aloud podcasts, and you may remember that the guilty old sailor who shot the albatross was for a long while appalled by the strange creatures of the sea, until he was granted a new heart and new eyes to see them, and he blessed them in his soul. I don’t think that most children, if you asked them to picture something outdoors, will think first of great eels and sea-snakes swimming atop the waves, which is what the Ancient Mariner saw, although my good friend Odilon has told me how he and his brother used to go eeling at night with long spears, scrounging for them in the mud of the bay. Don’t be fooled, dear readers, by the shape — an eel is just a stretched-out fish! In any case, what Mrs. Alexander imagines that the children will think of are the things that meet them when first they step outside: the flowers, the birds, the mountains in the distance, the river, and the weedy pond where they gather rushes. I’ve little doubt that the children where she lived in Ireland were more familiar with the habits, the calls, and the wings and feathers of a great variety of birds than children are now. Yet the creatures are still here among us — the birds and the children both.
And it’s not entirely fair to say that she has avoided the less pretty things entirely. We have here both the morning and the evening; we have the summer sun and the winter wind. We have, too, in a verse that’s usually omitted, the rich man at his castle, and the poor man at his gate. That may strike your ear as out of place — because we consider that wealth and poverty are the work of man, not God. Yet the poor man here is not destitute and starving, and Mrs. Alexander believed that God in his providence ordained the estates people occupied, whether great or small. She herself was a tireless worker for the poor, not by proxy but in her own person, always on the road to bring them food, clothing, and medicine, and she used the proceeds from her poetry books to build a school for the deaf and dumb, at Strabane. Why the deaf and dumb? She and her sister had met, when they were young, a little deaf boy whose look seemed so sad and blank, their hearts were moved to try to open up the world to him and children like him. It is a pleasant thing to imagine the deaf children at the Strabane school, “singing” Mrs. Alexander’s hymns in sign language, which was how the classes there were taught.
The melody, Royal Oak, is perfect for the spirit of the hymn, lively and jaunty, with notes spilling like the water of a brook over the rocks, yet easily “caught” by children. And I think you have to be a child at heart to sing this song.
Refrain. All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all. Each little flower that opens, Each little bird that sings, He made their glowing colors, He made their tiny wings. Refrain. The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate. Refrain. The purple-headed mountain, The river running by, The sunset and the morning, That brightens up the sky. Refrain. The cold wind in the winter, The pleasant summer sun, The ripe fruits in the garden,− He made them every one. Refrain. The tall trees in the greenwood, The meadows where we play, The rushes by the water, We gather every day. Refrain. He gave us eyes to see them, And lips that we might tell, How great is God Almighty, Who has made all things well. Refrain.
Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.