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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

15 February 2019

Malcolm Guite surveys some ancient manuscripts at the British Library

I AM just back from a visit to the British Library’s “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms” exhibition (Arts, 4 January). I spent the whole afternoon there, but would happily have stayed for a week, standing in the presence of so many moving and beautiful manuscripts about which I had read, but which I had never thought I would actually see.

But there they all were, including the Vercelli manuscript that contains The Dream of the Rood, the poem spoken by the cross, which is, for me at least, the foundation of all English Christian poetry. It was flanked on one side by the only manuscript of Beowulf, and on the other by the Exeter Book, that contains the enigmatic riddles that so fascinated Tolkien and which he wove into his Legendarium.

It was a perfect place for the manuscript of The Dream; for, on the one hand, that poem speaks deeply into the heroic world of Beowulf, and, on the other, it is itself a kind of riddle, in which a strange tree tells the story, from its own perspective, of how it discovered that the wounded man whom it bore on its boughs was God Almighty. It is only part way through the poem, which has no title, that the tree reveals itself as “the rood”, the cross of Christ.

But the most moving book of all was the smallest book in the exhibition: the St Cuthbert Gospel. A seventh-century manuscript copy of the Gospel of St John, it has an extraordinary aura and presence, not simply because it is the oldest bound book in Europe, but because of the saint whose book it was, the long centuries it has endured, and the glorious Gospel it contains.

This was the one book that I had seen before, in Durham, which is where it really belongs. I had visited an exhibition there, “Bound to Last: Bookbinding from the Middle Ages to the Present Day”, and had been expecting little more than the beautiful leather tooling and luxury embossing of prestige binders.

And then I came face to face with the St Cuthbert Gospel: the very book that they placed on his breast in his coffin, the Gospel that he loved the most, and lived so fruitfully; a little pocket-book, red-leather-bound and all intact, which had sailed through centuries to meet me there on Palace Green.

And, in that presence, it seemed that every concern for bindings and covers fell away, and I seemed to hear the saint himself, chanting the words that St Augustine heard and that brought him also to the Gospel, Tolle lege, Tolle lege: take up and read! That experience moved me to write a sonnet, which I published in my book Parable and Paradox, and, standing again before that little book yesterday, in London, I called that sonnet back to mind:

Cuthbert’s Gospel

I stand in awe before this little book,
The Gospel that lay close on Cuthbert’s breast,
Its 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.”

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