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Knocking on heaven’s door

04 March 2022

This year’s Lent series is drawn from a book of seasonal poems chosen and with commentary by Richard Harries

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Lachrimae amantis

What is there in my heart that you should

so fiercely for its love? What kind of care
brings you as though a stranger to my door
through the long night and in the icy dew
seeking the heart that will not harbour you,
that keeps itself religiously secure?
At this dark solstice filled with frost and fire
your passion’s ancient wounds must bleed

So many nights the angel of my house
has fed such urgent comfort through a

whispered “your lord is coming, he is close”
that I have drowsed half-faithful for a time
bathed in pure tones of promise and

“tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him.”

                               Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016)

GEOFFREY HILL was born and brought up in Worcestershire, and that part of the world always meant much to him, as expressed in his poems about its ancient kingdom of Mercia.

When quite young, he composed poetry as he went on solitary walks and he was first published while a student at Oxford University. For most of his career, he was Professor of Poetry at Leeds, before taking up other distinguished academic positions, including being Professor of Poetry at Oxford. He won many awards. In 2013, he was described as the greatest poet in the English language.

His poetry is notoriously difficult, and his criticism notoriously polemical, with its prophetic anger at the ills of modern culture. Even as a student, he defended the right of poets to be difficult in order to counter the easy simplifications of the age, such simplifications being the tool of tyrants.

There is also a battle in his poetry between the lyricism for which he had a gift, and which beautifies, and the truth he was committed to tell, which was often brutal. In contrast to the prevailing outlook of the time, he was a serious Christian, and his second wife was a Christian priest.

THIS lovely poem is surprisingly accessible. It begins with a question: what is there about me that God should care so much; that he should be like a lover on his knees pleading for a “yes”? This pleading is so intense it can be described as “fierce”. You can almost see the passion in the lover’s face and eyes.

What is there in my heart that you should

so fiercely for its love?
This God comes to us as a stranger at the door after a long hard journey.

                                         What kind of care
brings you as though a stranger to my door
through the long night and in the icy dew?

For the Christian reader, the words cannot help but bring to mind the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. God is like a shepherd who searches through the mountains to find the one sheep that is lost, or the woman who scrabbles all over the floor looking for her lost coin. God never gives us up on us, but searches us out wherever we may hide.

This was the pattern of Jesus’s own ministry to those on the margins of the society of his day, and he made it clear that this is but a human working out of God’s eternal searching for every human soul. So the stranger who treks through the long night and the icy dew is, in fact, the eternal Son of God making the incredible journey of self-limitation in the incarnation.

The second verse reveals an acute self-knowledge in recognising that religion can be a kind of security that keeps God at a distance. We know that there is something in us that will not harbour God, that does not want to let him in and, moreover, can sometimes use religion as a way to keep him out; the heart can keep itself “religiously secure”.

Despite this, God keeps coming, though again the poet recognises his own ambivalence. He knows he is only half-faithful and, though he is full of remorse, he puts off the encounter with a promise to welcome God in the morning: “Tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him.”

Genuine religion, as expressed in this poem, is based not only on the belief that God goes on seeking us out but also on honest self-knowledge.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford.

Hearing God in Poetry: Fifty poems for Lent and Easter by Richard Harries is published by SPCK at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.99); 978-0-281-08629-0.

Lachrimae amantis © Estate of Geoffrey Hill

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