Selected Poem - 'Church-lock and key'

On a fine autumn morning, with the dew sparkling in the sunshine, I opened up the little George Herbert church in Bemerton with the large iron key. The key was heavy in my hand, and the sound of it turning in the lock echoed in the space.

'Church-lock and key'

I Know it is my sinne, which locks thine eares,
And bindes thy hands,
Out-crying my requests, drowning my tears;
Or else the chilnesse of my faint demands.

But as cold hands are angrie with the fire,
And mend it still;
So I do lay the want of my desire,
Not on my sinnes, or coldnesse, but thy will.

Yet heare, O God, onely for his blouds sake
Which pleads for me:
For though sinnes plead too, yet like stones they make
His blouds sweet current much more loud to be.

Commentary

Perhaps in the 17th century George Herbert would walk across the road from the Rectory for morning prayer and disturb the silence by unlocking the door. This physical act is used as a metaphor for the unlocking of the door of the human heart through prayer.

It is sin which locks the door to God’s presence. Coldness of heart keeps Herbert from the loving presence of God: the previous poem Church-Music ended with the phrase heaven’s door, and it is this door which appears to be shut. In the first stanza, neither Herbert’s requests, tears or even the weakness of his demands gain access.

Icy hands in the winter chill turn an angry red when warmed by a fire. So Herbert in the second stanza lays the blame for his own coldness not on himself but on the powerful will of God.

 

The third stanza brings resolution. Access to God is through the redemptive death of Christ on the cross. It is the key which unlocks the door that bars God’s presence. Christ’s red blood pleads in a way that is totally effective. Indeed, as stones in a stream increase the sound of the water, so stony hearts, weighed down by sin, allow the redemptive work of Christ to seem even more effective.

This poem was originally entitled Prayer, and in the earlier manuscript “W” has an additional stanza and a different final stanza.

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