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The Corpus Christi Carol
Lully, lullay, lully, lullay!
The faucon hath borne my make away.
He bare him up, he bare him down,
He bare him into an orchard brown.
In that orchard there was a hall,
That was hangèd with purple and pall.
And in that hall there was a bed,
It was hangèd with gold so red.
And in that bed there lieth a knight,
His woundès bleeding day and night.
By that bedside there kneeleth a may,
And she weepeth both night and day.
And by that bedside there standeth a stone,
Corpus Christi written thereon.

This wonderful poem was first written down by a London tradesman named Richard Hill at the beginning of the sixteenth century. We don’t know when it was composed—given the language (Middle English), it was probably already a very old poem when Hill copied it into his commonplace book. The original musical setting has been lost, but the poem has been set to music many times, most famously by Benjamin Britten.
The imagery of the poem captures us with its strangeness. What is happening here? Is this a lullaby? A poem about falconry? Orchards and halls? Knights and ladies? The poem does not readily yield up its meanings, which is perhaps one reason it remains so compelling. As scholar Miri Rubin has noted, “the poem is at once a lullaby, a romance, a liturgical text and a riddle.”
The poem is cinematic in its movement. It starts with a dramatic event: “The faucon hath borne my make away”—a falcon has carried away the “make” or “mate” of the poem’s speaker. The poem then takes us on a journey in pursuit of the falcon and the speaker’s mate: “He bare him up, he bare him down, / He bare him into an orchard brown.” From the orchard, we move to a hall, from the hall to a bed, from the bed to a wounded knight and a weeping maiden. Last of all, we come to a stone on which are written the words “Corpus Christi”—the Body of Christ.
Were it not for that last stanza, we would not know that this poem was anything but a courtly medieval romance peopled by knights and ladies and falcons. The inscribed stone is the answer to the riddle we did not realize we were being asked: Corpus Christi, Body of Christ. Those words, of course, have two meanings: the body of Christ is the body of Jesus; the body of Christ is the Eucharist.
Now, we can read the poem allegorically: the knight, so gravely wounded, is Christ; the weeping maid is Mary of the pietà, grieving for her Son. The poem can also be read in light of the Grail legend, which takes knights and ladies on an unending quest for the chalice of Christ. Scholar Eamon Duffy sees the poem in terms of medieval liturgy, especially the Easter Sepulchre, a Holy Week custom in which the Eucharist was adored in a setting not unlike the one described here: elaborate tapestries and hangings surrounding an image of the crucified Christ, and the ciborium containing the Body of Christ, Corpus Christi.
The poem and its imagery remain mysterious. But that inscribed stone has a finality about it:  Corpus Christi. The journey, the quest, ends here: with the body, Christ’s Eucharistic presence. As Miri Rubin has written, “The journey is finally summarized if not resolved when we encounter at the end of the carol a stone inscribed ‘Corpus Christi’—nothing more…. [the] eucharistic Christ is an end, a travellers’ fare and a travellers’ rest.”
The Eucharist is always beginning and end, source and summit, food for our journey and foretaste of the heavenly banquet. The Eucharist is the ultimate quest, the mystery at once accessible and elusive. To quote another medieval poet—St. Thomas Aquinas:  “Here beneath these signs are hidden / Priceless things to sense forbidden; / Signs, not things are all we see.” (Sequence for Corpus Christi)
Listen to Britten’s setting of the poem here: https://youtu.be/pCETr4mO_fc?si=Wb6MK8cHKZME6AaZ

Corinna Laughlin





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