Epic Children’s hymn has a Universal and Urgent Significance
Cecil Frances Alexander is an Irish writer who published her poetry collection Verses For Holy Season in 1846. She followed it up with the publication of Hymns for Little Children in 1848. The song “All Things Bright and Beautiful” is one of the hymns included in the latter. One can find a basis for her lyrics in the Apostle’s Creed, Psalm 10:24-25, or William Paley’s book Natural Theology (1802). Natural Theology describes God as nature’s architect, and that eyes and wings embody God’s complex design. Based on Cecil Frances Alexander’s donation of all proceeds of Hymns of Little Children to lady Harriet Howards school for deaf and dumb children, she dedicated the hymn to small children. It even became popular as a poem children frequently recited. The publication of her hymnal contributed to the popularity of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. Women like her may not have had the right to vote or acquire property at that time, but six of 400 hymns she wrote are still found in Irish hymnals today and her poetry was celebrated by Alfred Lord Tennyson and Mark Twain.
The composer William Henry Monk’s musical arrangement of it is in Victorian hymn style, so it was simple for children to immediately learn it. It is best sung with a light performance of the piano. It’s also rendered as a blissful choral performance backed up by an orchestra. In a choral performance, it could begin as a solo, joined shortly by harmonies of many voices singing sweetly.
The exaltation of nature as being the ultimate expression of God’s design is seen in the 1988 Australian RSPCA TV ad showing all sorts of animals passing by while Monk’s tune plays. After the tune, a voice-over comes in: “RSPCA. For all creatures great and small”. In contrast, the original theme is altered in our contemporary world besieged by environmental degradation, as seen in a cinema ad commissioned by Friends of Earth, Scotland. The short shows a child singing the first verse as the video shows the world disappearing. In this cautionary tale the world is fading, and so the final verse is revised to, “All gone, we killed them all.”