Cuthbert’s Gospel; a new sonnet

St. Cuthbert's Gospel

St. Cuthbert’s Gospel

The other day I found myself standing in front of perhaps the most precious and numinous book in Europe. Not simply because it is the oldest bound book to survive intact, but because of the Saint whose book it was, the centuries through which it has journeyed to reach us, and the glorious Gospel it contains. I had entered the exhibition innocently enough, ‘Bound to Last’, it was called ‘Bookbinding from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, and I was expecting little more than the beautiful leather tooling, the gold-hilighting, and luxury embossing of prestige binders. And then I came face to face with Cuthbert’s Gospel; the very book they placed upon his breast, the gospel that he loved the most and lived so fruitfully, a little pocket-book, red-leather-bound and all intact that sailed through centuries to meet me here on Palace Green. And in that presence it seemed that every care for bindings and for covers fell away, and I seemed to hear the saint himself, chanting the words that Saint Augustine heard, that brought him also to the Gospel, Tolle, Lege, Tolle Lege, take it and read it!  I wrote this sonnet before opening my own copy of St. John.

As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the title or the play button. I will be reading this and other sonnets in Durham Cathedral Quire on the 10th of November at 7:30pm. this event is free and all are welcome. Details Here

Cuthbert’s Gospel

I stand in awe before this little book,

The gospel that lay close on Cuthbert’s breast,

It’s Coptic binding and red leather-work

As sound and beautiful as when they placed

This treasure with the treasure they loved best

And set them sailing through the centuries

Until these coffined riches came to rest

In front of me as open mysteries.


But as I look I seem to hear him speak

‘This book is precious but don’t waste your breath

On bindings and half uncials and the like,

Breathe in the promise of a better birth

Tolle et Lege, try and find it true,

The bound Word waits to be made flesh in you.

The opening page of Cuthbert's copy of St. John

The opening page of Cuthbert’s copy of St. John


Filed under imagination, literature, Poems

13 responses to “Cuthbert’s Gospel; a new sonnet

  1. MASSON M.


    Looking forward to seeing you on Thursday evening in Chad’s. If you come to Chad’s main entrance for around 7.10 (it’s the door opposite the rose window of the cathedral with the light always on above it) you will find the SCR directly across the entrance hall. We can have a drink there before dinner which is at 7.30. if you have a gown, do bring it, it not, we will supply one.

    All good wishes,


    Dr Margaret Masson
    Vice-Principal and Senior Tutor
    St Chad’s College
    Durham University
    18 North Bailey
    DH1 3RH

    0191 334 3354
    0191 334 3358 (College Office)

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  2. I find the relationship between objects and the lives connected to them ever more gripping. In St Cuthbert’s gospel that not only includes the saint himself but also all who have nourished his memory over the centuries and do so today to the benefit of all of us. And as you show it weaves the Jesus story into our lives in a unique manner. I feel the same way about churches. Next Tuesday I will conduct an Armistice Day service at All Saints Wilden in Worcestershire in which the stories of the men of the village who died will be woven anew into the fabric of a building where Stanley Baldwin was once church warden (his father built the church and the school next door). I think Baldwin’s opposition to Churchill’s calls for re-armament in the 1930s were profoundly connected to the story of this little church and its community and that of the men who left the village to go to war in 1914 never to return. This too in its unique way connects to the Jesus story. Perhaps the injunction Lege Tolle should apply to the way we learn to read the Jesus story through all our encounters with the world around us. I’ll have a go at trying to communicate something of that thought when I go there.
    Just a PS in conclusion: My daughter, Bethan, is a 2nd Music student in Durham & I will see if I can persuade her to go with a few friends to your poetry reading on Monday at Durham Cathedral. Monday is a long day for her but she seems to have plenty of energy!

    • malcolmguite

      Many thanks for this Stephen i entirely agree with you and especially with what you ssy about Tolle Lege applying to opkaces and people as well as scripture. I’ll look out for your daughter at the reading.

  3. lanciaesmith

    “Breathe in the promise of a better birth, Tolle et Lege, try and find it true, The bound Word waits to be made flesh in you.” This poem is so beautiful and piercing in its promise with such a rich and pregnant call to incarnation. I hear the mystery of that wonder interweaving through the spaces between each line. Thank you, Malcolm. Many blessings and every grace to you.

  4. jennifer prior

    Dear Bert, I am forwarding this post to you … just for fun… because of our mutual love of books … though I do not consider our love bookish in the least. I didn’t know that Cuthbert’s Gospel is one of the oldest surviving Anglo-Saxon books, also, I thought you might appreciate Malcolm Guite’s reference to St. Augustine. with love, Jennifer Date: Tue, 4 Nov 2014 07:56:21 +0000 To:

  5. Ingelise

    So so right. We must not keep God’s word all bound up and to ourselves. It is to be spread with JOY

  6. Pingback: Cuddy; a sonnet for St. Cuthbert | Malcolm Guite

  7. Dear Malcolm — Writing from another Durham, that of North Carolina, which has its own familiarity to you, and where we briefly encountered one another . . . what a lovely, rich, and (as someone wrote earlier) piercing poem. It truly opens up my imagination to the interweaving of the physical and the spiritual and invites me to ever-realize that the eternal and unseen is more real, more true, and waiting to invade, be united with, and reform what our eyes do see. Thank you!

    God willing, and COVID allowing, my wife and I are joining dear friends (he teaches at Gordon Conwell and she leads the spiritual direction training program where my wife was trained) to walk St Cuthbert’s Way in early July. We’re beefing up our knowledge, and I believe (now!) your poem will be carried along with us as well. We’ve shared it amongst ourselves this morning.

    Peace in our Lord’s grace,

    Bishop Steve Breedlove

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