Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

25 October 2019

Malcolm Guite introduces Girton College’s freshers to Apple Day and evensong

THIS year’s freshers have arrived at Girton, and spent their first couple of weeks absorbing and enjoying the cornucopia of rich and sometimes strange new experiences that the college and university have to offer. Most of these consist largely of free food and drink, and one of the best of these convivial events was Girton’s Apple Day, which happily coincided with our first Sunday evensong.

For the Apple Day, we brought into the dining hall samples of the rare varieties of apples from our orchards, the fruit of so much skilful grafting and pruning. We served food with different apple sauces, washed down with apple juice or cider, and then had everyone whirling round the hall to various English country dances. I was really impressed at how willing the freshers were to fling themselves into it and have a go.

I savoured the occasion, and I also savoured the apples, as much for their names as for their flavours. We had Blenheim Orange, a variety dating back to 1740, found growing against the boundary of Blenheim Park by a local cobbler, who moved it into his garden and “thousands thronged from all parts to gaze upon its ruddy, ripening, orange burden.” We had Cox’s Orange Pippin from 1825, very rare now, and the stately Egremont Russet, named in 1872, as it was found on Lord Egremont’s estate, although our orchard handbook adds, a little tartly, that “its parentage is unknown.” And we had Jupiter, a jovial cross of Cox’s Orange Pippin and Starking Delicious, first grafted in the Swinging Sixties.

And then we moved on from the orchard and the hall to the chapel. As it was the first service of the year, I made it a “guided evensong”, which is to say that I introduced each part of the service with something of its history and meaning, together with the reach and the poetry of its biblical references.

I spoke a little of how the shape of the liturgy might shape and sharpen our responses and our pleasure in taking part. So, I showed them how in the versicle and response “O Lord open thou our lips. And our mouth shall show forth thy praise,” we were taking on our lips the words of Psalm 51, recovering from our own confession, just as David recovered from his.

I showed how Mary’s Magnificat is quite rightly the hinge between the Old and New Testament readings; for she herself fulfils the promises of the Old and gives birth to the New. And how, after we have heard that New Testament reading, it is only natural that we should all, for a moment, become old Simeon and say or sing with him, “mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

But it was when I told them how the service itself had been created, how Cranmer had skilfully taken the two monastic offices of vespers and compline, and grafted them together into this new variety of liturgy; how he had pruned away the repetitions, let the light of translation in on the readings, and allowed the whole to flourish and bear fruit for future generations, that I suddenly felt a link with our earlier Apple Day festivities.

Here, too, was a sturdy old English variety, adorned with early fruit (for we sang Tallis as our introit) and late beauty (our anthem was by Elgar); and here were our students, sampling in chapel, as they had done in hall, something they might otherwise never have known.

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