Although the phrase "all things both great and small" is familiar to many people, few are aware that this expression originated in the 18th century and is a line from the poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And most are not familiar with the rest of the verse from which it is taken.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
The author of these lines, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was one of the most renowned men of his time (1772-1834) and his narrative poem is still a staple of English literature classes and encyclopedia entries. Yet in all the contemporary articles that are written about The Ancient Mariner, none discusses the main theme of the poem.
Mariner tells the story of a sailor who maliciously shoots a bird—an albatross. The poem is an indictment of the mistreatment of nonhuman beings and makes the point that although the killing of animals entails no legal penalty, human beings do suffer the result of such crimes. They do reap what they have sown.
The Mariner is far out at sea when a magnificent albatross alights on the ship's deck. The crew sees this as a good omen: "As though it were a Christian soul, we welcomed it in God's name." For weeks the bird follows the ship and becomes quite tame. The men feed and play with it, and take note that no matter how long it may be gone during the day, it always returns at "vespers nine"—the traditional time that Christian families gathered together for evening prayer.
Then one day, the Mariner kills the albatross. There is no reason for the killing. It is a random act of violence; the kind of thing that men with weapons have always done, slaughtering even the most gentle and friendly creatures.
No one tried to stop the Mariner. He stood on deck with the other men, taking aim with his crossbow as the graceful white bird circled the ship, and killed him as he was about to land. The body was left at the side of the deck where it had fallen. And in the way of those who have been taught to accept such cruelties, the crew did not protest its death.
But after a few days during which "no sweet bird did follow," the ship is becalmed and the crew blames the killing of the albatross for their dangerous situation. Only when faced with seeming retribution for what was done, do they admit that what had taken place was wrong. But instead of sharing responsibility for their passive role in the killing, the men place all the blame on the Mariner. "Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay/ That made the breeze to blow." They retrieve the corpse of the dead bird from the deck and "Instead of a Cross, the albatross/ About [his] neck was hung."
Eventually, all the crew dies of thirst in the becalmed sea. They die unrepentant, without remorse for their complicity in the slaying of the albatross. Only the Mariner lives on, knowing the agony of a living death, surrounded by the corpses of his shipmates, which lie on the deck just as the body of the dead albatross had lain.
The Mariner looks to heaven and tries to pray but cannot: "his heart is dry as dust." He then looks down at the motionless water and is revolted by the water snakes--"slimy things that crawled about/ Upon the slimy sea."
His suffering continues and he cries out: "Alone, alone, all, all alone,/Alone on a wide, wide sea/And never a saint took pity on/ My soul in agony." But in his continuing torment, something happens in his soul.
One night, as a full moon lights the ocean, the Mariner again looks down into the motionless sea. But now he sees the water snakes differently. He recognizes them as fellow creatures, beautiful to see as they flash about in the water. "O Happy living things! no tongue/Their beauty might declare/ A spring of love gushed from my heart/ And I blessed them..."
The moment he is able to love and pray for these other creatures, the Mariner's ordeal is ended. The lesson has been learned. The albatross is loosed from his neck and finds its burial place in the sea.
He is saved, but for the rest of his life the man must reveal what he has learned, "I pass, like night, from land to land/I have strange powers of speech/The moment that his face I see/I know the man that must hear me/To him my tale I teach."
And when the tale of his ordeal has been told, the Mariner ends his encounter with these words: "Farewell, farewell! but this I tell/...He prayeth well, who loveth well/Both man and bird and beast/ He prayeth best, who loveth best/All things both great and small/For the dear God who loveth us/He made and loveth all."
Although the theme of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is obvious, the author wanted to be doubly sure that no one missed its meaning. And to insure this, Coleridge added explanatory notes to be published in the margins of his poem. The last notation says that the Ancient Mariner must wander from place to place because he must "teach, by his own example, love and reverence for all things that God made and loveth."
Two hundred years after Mariner was first published, it is still reviewed, explained, and analyzed. The results of such scrutiny? Not a word about the author's profound message concerning God's love for all creatures and human culpability for the mistreatment of any sentient being. This refusal of contemporary critics to discuss the theme of the poem amounts to a conspiracy of silence.
But although modern commentators ignore the profound message of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, it had a great impact on the people of the author's generation. It was a time when the lengthy narrative poem had the kind of influence on the general public that a best-selling book might have in our own day. And in the decades that followed publication, England became a focal point for the rising consciousness that animals, like humans, were God's creatures and their mistreatment carried with it inexorable--if not legal--penalties. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) was founded; anti-vivisection became a viable public issue and animal welfare became a rallying point for groups in all parts of the British Empire. And vegetarianism, as a practical application of nonviolence towards animals, also began to influence increasing numbers of people.
Profound love demands a deep conception and out of this develops reverence for the mystery of life. It brings us close to all beings. To the poorest and smallest, as well as all others. We reject the idea that man is ”master of all other creatures,” “lord” above all others. ....Our neighbor is not only man: my neighbor is a creature like myself, subject to the same joys, the same fears, and the idea of Reverence for Life gives us something more profound and mightier than the idea of Humanism. For it includes all living beings.
The influence of Coleridge continues today in spite of scholars who substitute academic trivia for commentary on the profound nature of his poem. His work lives on in the lives of those who understand that spiritual development includes the realization that all creatures, great and small, must be treated with compassion and kindness because “the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.”