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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

09 June 2023

Malcolm Guite savours a mysterious lyric in the Corpus Christi Carol

I LOVE the old feast of Corpus Christi, or the Day of Thanksgiving for Holy Communion, as Common Worship calls it. My sense of its mystery came before I even began to know that it was a mystery in which I might partake. I first encountered the two words “Corpus Christi” in the medieval Corpus Christi Carol, which I found in the anthology Mediaeval English Lyrics, even before I heard the setting by Benjamin Britten, or the version by the late American singer Jeff Buckley, which made it more famous and accessible.

What I loved about that mysterious lyric was the way in which the poetry, in a falcon’s flight, took you through one layer of image and meaning after another, with a sense of unwrapping or penetrating a deep hiddenness: first, the “orchard brown”, and then, within the orchard, the hall, and then, in the hall, a bed, curtained with “gold so red”, and, in the bed, the wounded knight, and, by the bed, the weeping maid, then that final verse: “And by that bed’s side there stands a stone, ‘Corpus Christi’ written thereon. . .”

It’s as well they weren’t obliged in the 14th century to write: “By that bedside there stands a stone, ‘Day of Thanksgiving for Holy Communion’ written thereon.”

There are many theories, of course, about what is going on in this carol, and how it relates both to the Arthurian myths and to the mystery of the eucharist. I find Eamon Duffy persuasive when he writes that “there can be no question whatever” that the carol’s “strange cluster of images” are derived “directly from the cult of the Easter Sepulchre, with its Crucifix, Host, and embroidered hangings, and the watchers kneeling around it day and night”.

But one needn’t be so specific. For me, it is the inter-layering, the hiddenness, that speaks to my experience. The image of the bleeding knight, perhaps Malory’s Fisher King, speaks of the Passion; and yet the use of the present continuous rather than the past tense speaks of resurrection and the eucharistic presence.

Using a very different linguistic register, I tried to get some sense of the seeking and finding, the hiding and being discovered, that happens at every communion, in my poem “Hide and Seek”:

Hide and Seek

Ready or not, you tell me, here I come!
And so I know I’m hiding, and I know
My hiding-place is useless. You will come
And find me. You are searching high and low.
Today I’m hiding low, down here, below,
Below the sunlit surface others see.
Oh find me quickly, quickly come to me.
And here you come and here I come to you.
I come to you because you come to me.
You know my hiding places. I know you,
I reach you through your hiding-places too;
Feeling for the thread, but now I see —
Even in darkness I can see you shine,
Risen in bread, and revelling in wine.

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