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A beautiful place for everything. . .

by
20 September 2013

With harvest festivals upon us, Stephen Laird argues that the much censored verse in 'All things bright and beautiful', which puts rich and poor in their place, is an integral part of the hymn

Ever so humble: snowdrops and crocuses are examples of flowers "of low estate" fromThe Temple of Flora, with a modest cottage in the backgound and a "worked" landscape

Ever so humble: snowdrops and crocuses are examples of flowers "of low estate" fromThe Temple of Flora, with a modest cottage in the backgound and a...

AN AMBITIOUS botanical work was published by Robert John Thornton between 1797 and 1807. The third volume of The Temple of Flora: Or, garden of nature. The Temple of Flora is still highly prized by collectors for its detailed and dramatic hand-coloured plates of flowering plants.

Dr Thornton was an exact contemporary of the painter John Constable, and the two men shared political and religious perspectives that were characteristic of the educated classes of their era.

In 1824, Thornton wrote: "Adore the supreme BENEFACTOR for the blessings he showers down upon every order of beings; adore HIM for numberless mercies which are appropriated to thyself; but, above all, adore HIM for that noble gift of a rational and immortal soul . . . we are qualified to admire our MAKER'S works and capable of bearing his illustrious image."

Thornton was a passionate defender of the established British constitution. In 1795 he resisted protests from English radicals, and opposed their "levelling ideas", which he saw as a threat to "the best constitution in the world".

 

MOST astonishing of all to the 21st-century mind, however, is the way that Thornton's understanding of the ordering of society is reflected in the botanical illustrations to the Temple of Flora. This is demonstrated through the important relationships between the floral subjects and the landscape backgrounds in each image, and is articulated in some explanatory verses.

The backgrounds function in a similar way to those seen in many 18th-century portrait paintings - they indicate the status of the sitter. Thornton perceived a parallel "natural" social hierarchy of plants, in which he saw the mirror image of an equally "natural" social hierarchy in British society:

Some flowers rear their heads with a majestic mien; and overlook, like sovereigns or nobles, the whole parterre. Others seem more moderate in their aims, and advance only to the middle stations; a genius turned for heraldry might term them the gentry of the border. While others, free from all aspiring views, creep unambitiously on the ground, and look like the commonalty of the kind.

Thornton's work reminds us that, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, beauty was not merely "aesthetic", but was perceived in anything that was believed to offer a reflection of the divine ordering of things. This was true of anything, whether it was observed through the discipline of classification within the natural sciences, or, more controversially, in the stratification of a society where people were expected to "know their place".

A VERSE in Cecil Frances Alexander's hymn "All things bright and beautiful":

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

has been excised from modern hymn-books because of a sense of unease about its theology and politics. Its detractors also think that it seems out of place within a composition that celebrates aspects of the beauty and providence of nature.

Approaching the verse from Thornton's perspective, however, helps us to appreciate how, when it was written in the mid-1840s, it was an integral part of the hymn - arguably the most important part, especially when correctly punctuated.

It deals with human relationships in the context of God's sovereignty over society: "God made them, high and lowly." Everyone, in other words, occupies a divinely ordained place in the society which operates according to God's plan. This was supposed to be something for which worshippers were expected to be grateful.

 

THORNTON's world-view is characteristic of the era that formed the social, scientific, and theological backdrop to the first half of Mrs Alexander's life (she was born in Dublin in 1818, and married an Anglican clergyman in 1850).

In her hymn, there are even hints of an awareness of the importance of the detailed scrutiny that undergirded the processes of classification in the natural sciences - science was, at this time, effectively a branch of theological inquiry. Mrs Alexander referred to "each" little flower and "each" little bird, along with certain of their characteristics - wings, colours, and so on.

Meanwhile, it is possible that moral judgements are being made. In the chorus of the hymn, the words "great", and "small" may be intended to denote significance rather than size. For Thornton, some kinds of plants and their "callings" were seen as more important than others, although the "small" things also have a place in God's plan.

A generation or two before "All things bright and beautiful" was written, there was a widespread fear that the sort of social meltdown that had torn French society apart would reach Britain's shores. In England, this nervousness, which had been experienced by Thornton and Constable, persisted well into the 1800s.

Mrs Alexander may have had other, more immediate concerns about threats to the status quo. In Ireland, angry tenant farmers from the Roman Catholic majority were resentful of the fact that they were forced to subsidise the Church of Ireland, and an uprising called the Tithe War continued throughout the 1830s.

 

IN THE UK, and the Irish Republic, we now subscribe to different political and theological ideologies, which are at odds with Mrs Alexander's third verse. Now that science and theology are, for the most part, independent disciplines, the discernment of "moral meaning" in the material world is not usually part of the aims of the former.

There is, however, a verse in the hymn that is often "starred", but not usually omitted from printed versions, which serves as a reminder that creation still has some lessons to teach us.

The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows for our play,
The rushes by the water,
To gather every day.

Although this may not reflect 21st-century work or recreation, the reference to the gathering of rushes is a subtle but vital reminder that humans can, and do, have an impact on the natural environment.

This could be as a result of anything from picking a handful of wildflowers to being directly (through agricultural activities), or indirectly (as consumers), responsible for the decline in the population of bees.

People who are concerned about the stewardship of the natural environment, and see it as God's creation, can argue that it still has lessons to teach us. Some of these are scientific: for example, when the necessity to develop environmentally friendly forms of crop improvement, or pest control are revealed. Others are "moral": when nature behaves in ways that suggest that humans need to alter their patterns of consumption, or distribution.

We are neither observers nor controllers of the world in which we live, but part of its ecosystems. The final verse of "All things bright and beautiful", which strangely evokes the words of Dr Thornton quoted earlier, invites us to tell everyone about God's good works in creation; works that we recognise through grace:

He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we may tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.

The Revd Dr Stephen Laird is Dean of Chaplaincy at the University of Kent, and Priest-in-Charge of Blean.

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