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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

14 May 2021

In Jesus College Chapel, Malcolm Guite is moved to hear a choir sing again

I HAD great joy the other Sunday to be present in person when a real choir was actually singing! How easily we took all that for granted, especially those of us who were college chaplains and got used to hearing exquisite music sung live in worship every Sunday evening, as though it were an unassailable custom and always ours by right.

But my first return to a college chapel in more than a year felt like a privilege and a gift: no mere return to normal, but an unexpected plenitude, an unmerited grace. The choir — robed in red; for this was Jesus College — stood in the wide space of the crossing of the chapel, socially distanced from one another and from us, each on their allotted square on the floor, like carefully placed chess pieces, and, suddenly, without introduction or announcement, the glorious opening of Purcell’s setting of “Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again, I say, rejoice,” rose from their lips and filled the air, and all our hearts and minds were lifted with the music. I thought of Herbert’s lovely lines in “Church Music”:


Sweetest of sweets, I thank you: when
   displeasure
Did through my bodie wound my minde,
You took me thence, and in your house of
   pleasure

A daintie lodging me assign’d.

Now I in you without a bodie move,
Rising and falling with your wings:
We both together sweetly live and love. . .


And the sense of rising and falling on the wings of the music also made me think of the transformative moment in The Ancient Mariner, when, after his long lonely agony (for Mariner is a lockdown poem if ever there was one), the Mariner hears angels sing their morning hymn through the bodies of his shipmates:


For when it dawned — they dropped their
   arms,
And clustered round the mast;
Sweet sounds rose slowly through their
   mouths,

And from their bodies passed.

Around, around, flew each sweet sound,
Then darted to the Sun;
Slowly the sounds came back again,
Now mixed, now one by one. . .

And now ’twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute;
And now it is an angel’s song,
That makes the heavens be mute.


Coleridge was very much in my mind; for I had been invited to preach about his beautiful theology of imagination. He was an undergraduate at Jesus, and, of course, worshipped in that very chapel. His career as an undergraduate was chequered, to say the least, and he never took his degree; but, in the fullness of time and at the peak of his powers, he returned to the Trinitarian faith preached and celebrated in that chapel, and I was able to share with some of the students something of his insight that we are all, at every moment, being spoken or sung into being by God — that we too are part


. . . Of that eternal language, which thy God

Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.


But, in the end, I felt that it was not my sermon but the music that filled and renewed that place: the music of Purcell, and Gibbons, and Byrd which was really transformative, which spoke the “eternal language” and lifted all our hearts.


The Revd Dr Malcolm Guite is a speaker at “Send my roots rain: a poetry retreat”, an online event tomorrow (Saturday 15 May), organised by the
Church Times. More details here.

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