‘Every Idle Word’: What if we had to own up to what we say?

For different reasons we have all, on both sides of the Atlantic, been reflecting on the way our words can travel and unravel beyond us, on the need to care for the tenor of what we say. Here in the UK we are on the cusp of a vital debate and vote on our future relations with Europe, deep passions are engaged and tempers are running high. Like many people I have been disturbed by the metaphors of violence that MP’s carelessly deploy about one another (‘sharpening the knife’ etc) and by the sheer torrent of angry abuse the MPs themselves face outside parliament. The murder of Jo Cox in 2016, just before our Brexit referendum, showed us how violent language can generate and spill over into actual bloodshed. Back in 2011, before any of these events, I had already become uneasy about the coarsening of our discourse and particularly about hate speech, and I wrote this poem reflecting on Jesus’ warning to us about the consequences of the words we use, about the fact that we will be held accountable for them. I published that poem in 2013 in my book The Singing Bowl, but now at the beginning of 2019, it seems more urgent than ever.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

What If…

But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” Mathew 12:36-37

What if every word we say
Never ends or fades away,
Gathers volume gathers weigh,
Drums and dins us with dismay
Surges on some dreadful day
When we cannot get away
Whelms us till we drown?

What if not a word is lost,
What if every word we cast
Cruel, cunning, cold, accurst,
Every word we cut and paste
Echoes to us from the past
Fares and finds us first and last
Haunts and hunts us down?

What if every murmuration,
Every otiose oration
Every oath and imprecation,
Insidious insinuation,
Every blogger’s aberration,
Every facebook fabrication
Every twittered titivation,
Unexamined asservation
Idiotic iteration,
Every facile explanation,
Drags us to the ground?

What if each polite evasion
Every word of defamation,
Insults made by implication,
Querulous prevarication,
Compromise in convocation,
Propaganda for the nation
False or flattering peruasion,
Blackmail and manipulation
Simulated desparation
Grows to such reverberation
That it shakes our own foundation,
Shakes and brings us down?

Better that some words be lost,
Better that they should not last,
Tongues of fire and violence.
O Word through whom the world is blessed,
Word in whom all words are graced,
Do not bring us to the test,
Give our clamant voices rest,
And the rest is silence.


Filed under christianity, Poems, politics

13 responses to “‘Every Idle Word’: What if we had to own up to what we say?


  2. Bruce Bridgewood

    A beautiful poem. Thank you..

  3. Melanie

    Malcolm..this is beautiful reminder.Do you think, if we ask forgiveness for the idle words we have spoken, we are forgiven, and those words lost forwver? I hope so?

    • malcolmguite

      Yes. I think he came to forgive us all our sins including those committed with words. But we need to repent and to do that we have to recognise the sin in the first place instead of just normalising it. Hence the poem M

  4. Reblogged this on Pastor Michael Moore's Blog and commented:
    Powerful challenge to each of us… sure got my attention, Malcolm!

  5. contemprisma

    Why am I urged automatically to respond “so help me God”?
    “What If” is fun. I love the humor, diction and of course the alliteration. It has set my attitude for the day. I will think before I talk and pray before I think.

  6. Deborah Higgens

    A very meaningful poem, Malcolm! Especially after the holidays when sometimes family and close friends are not what they seem and we “judge” through our words . . . Would you consider giving me permission to use this in my Chaucer class this term? We began this week and students are reading Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy and I feel it would match quite well. Blessings, Debbie Higgens

  7. What a sermon! Thank you!

  8. David C Brown


  9. Dear Malcolm, I have been listening and hearing your poem for days. Here is my poetic response.
    Linda Trott Dickman

    What if…a Response

    For Malcolm Guite

    It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.
    John 6:63

    What if every word we say
    lives, conveys, fills and plays,
    Thickens praise in flour like ways
    Harvests promise, turns the day
    Sets joy filled choristers a-sway
    Propels gideon-like armies to lap away

    What if every word expelled
    Filled with hope, can-do, propelled
    A sea full of encouragement in swells
    Closer to the goal compelled

    What if every syllable effervesced
    His mark upon the other impressed
    Filled with spirit, nothing less
    Conveyed new healing in each breast

    What if every phrase impart
    Revival coming from the heart
    Pearls of promise, brand new starts
    Boost the hearer, set apart

    What if we chose those lyric notes
    To bolster up, to fill, promote?
    Weaker, wounded kindred souls
    Him in our words, to make them whole?

    What if every bite ingested
    Came from bread, heaven tested
    Each nibble from His breath to feed
    Another who is dire in need.

    Better that our words are none.
    Than a single lamb a wounded one.
    Better that we hold our peace
    We hae no kind word to offer
    Than to sputter and spout
    And scream and shout
    Our own wisdom proffer.

  10. Very thought provoking and sobering!

    Very thought provoking and sobering!

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