Apple Tree

Last night’s Choral Evensong began with one of my favourites; a piece which gets sung quite a lot at this time of year and which is high on the list of Music Which Makes Me Cry. It was Elizabeth Poston’s carol Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. It is the weirdest thing. Most of the time I’ve no idea what the words mean and the music is strange and beguiling too. The central metaphor is that Jesus Christ is, well, an apple tree.

In the days when I thought I had to understand everything, it would have infuriated me to hear this kind of thing in church. Now I love it. In the space of a few bars of music and a few verses of text I find my own sense of self rebounding and reacting to images which are just over the horizon of what I really understand.

It affected me so much last night that I came home and looked up Elizabeth Poston. (Well, I typed her name into Google, if that counts as looking someone up). It seems that she was something of a mistress of the strange.

There is some information about her on this page, which also contains a fantastic picture. It seems that in wartime, she was a secret agent within the BBC, “using gramophone records to send coded messages to allies in Europe.”

That seems to me to be the most perfect way to understand her strange carol. The words are not by her, of course, they are from the New World. But it is not at all difficult to think of them being a coded message to allies overseas. Easy to see why they appealed to her enough to set them to music.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive, it keeps my dying faith alive:
Which makes my soul in haste to be with Jesus Christ the apple tree.

There is a nice youtube video of the choir of Kings College Cambridge singing it in about 1993 here.


  1. Elizabeth says

    I, too, love this carol. It reminds me of one of my favorite images from H.D.’s Trilogy. I’m thrilled to make the connection between Elizabeth Poston’s war work and H.D’s war poem.

    ‘We are part of it;
    we admit the transubstantiation,

    not God merely in bread
    but God in the other-half of the tree

    that looked dead –
    did I bow my head?

    did I weep? my eyes saw,
    it was not a dream

    yet it was vision,
    it was a sign,

    it was the Angel which redeemed me,
    it was the Holy Ghost –

    a half-burnt-out apple-tree

    this is the flowering of the rood,
    this is the flowering of the wood

    where Annael, we pause to give
    thanks that we rise again from death and live.’ (Trilogy, Tribute to the Angels, 23)

  2. Thanks Elizabeth. I’d forgotten that bit of H.D. – its wonderful.

    Has any of her poetry been set to music that you know of?

  3. I take the poem to be related to the idea of Christ as the New Adam. Whereas in Genesis 2, Gold told Adam that ‘of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die’, Jesus as both man and God embodies both the new Adam and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Under the old dispensation eating of the tree meant death; but with the new creation (which gets underway with the conception of Mary – today) Christ is the life-giving Apple Tree, by the eating of which our souls thrive. Something like that, anyway…

    On another theme: it struck me yesterday what a wonderful aid to devotion the mural of the Annunciation over the high altar is during the Magnificat.

  4. Thanks JRD.

    Yes the annunciation is great to look at during the Magnificat. Did you notice that it is taking place in a local tenement flat? Mary is sitting by a window, through which a familiar cathedral spire can be seen.

  5. Elizabeth says

    Mmm. I don’t know if any of H.D.’s stuff has been set to music. An intriguing challenge for the composers amongst us!

  6. There’s also a very lovely tune for this text by Daniel Pinkham, quite good for congregational singing. The notes in the leader’s guide of Wonder, Love, and Praise describe the tune as having “enduring and winsome charm,” which is pretty restrained as Fr Hooker’s editorial comments go.

  7. David |Dah • veed| says

    JRD, I think the Christ more akin to the Tree of Life, than the Tree of the knowledge of Good & Evil.

    But, that is just me.

  8. David — thank you — you are quite right! I ought to have done a bit more looking at — and remembering of — both texts! Indeed, the poem begins, ‘The tree of life my soul hath seen’. But I hope the analysis remains valid. The fruit of the tree(s) that was forbidden to the first Adam after the original creation is available to us through the new Adam of the new creation; and we are able to partake of it through the Eucharist. Indeed, Jesus Christ is the Tree of Life!

  9. I think this discussion illustrates rather well the complexities of trying to comprehend this strange text, doesn’t it?

  10. Having a quick coffee-break and stumbled on Song of Songs 2:3-6, which brought me back to this little discussion.

    As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention towards me was love. Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love. O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!

    It throws a new light, for me, on the ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ genre. Perhaps we could have ‘Jesus is my apple tree’ tee-shirts?

  11. Kelvin says

    Apple tree indeed.

    You’ve no idea of the pleasure it gives me to think that members of the congregation pick up the Song of Songs on a Wednesday morning to get them through their coffee break.

    Funnily enough, I read a brilliant 15 page commentary of the Song of Songs only the other week.

  12. Rachel Chown says

    I’d be interested to hear the details of this Song of Songs commentary. I love the Apple Tree carol, too. There was a lovely performance of this, at Lichfield Cathedral last Christmas.

  13. kelvin says

    Hi Rachel. The commentary on the Song of Songs that I was referring to was the chapter referring to that text which appears in The Queer Bible Commentary which I reviewed here.


  1. […] 9, 2008 by revruth Kelvin was talking about one of his favourite Christmas carols – Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. I love it […]

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