Between 1918 and 1920, Herbert Howells wrote three Carol-Anthems, of which “Here is the little door” was the first. It is based on a poem by Frances Chesterton (1869–1938), the wife of the great apologist and journalist G. K. Chesterton. In one of his own poem’s — “The Ballad of the White Horse” — Chesterton credited her with playing a crucial role in his own faith:
Therefore I bring these rhymes to you
Who brought the cross to me.
Unable to have any children, Frances Chesterton was deeply moved by the image of the Nativity and regularly wrote poems depicting the Infant Jesus for inclusion in Christmas cards. The best known of these is “How far is it to Bethlehem?” which has been set to music and included in many hymn-books for children. Less well-known but far more profound is “Here is the little door,” written from the point of view of one of the Magi, who serves as a stand-in for every believer.
Here is the little door, lift up the latch, oh lift!
We need not wander more but enter with our gift;
Our gift of finest gold,
Gold that was never bought nor sold;
Myrrh to be strewn about his bed;
Incense in clouds about his head;
All for the Child who stirs not in his sleep.
But holy slumber holds with ass and sheep.
Bend low about his bed, for each he has a gift;
See how his eyes awake, lift up your hands, O lift!
For gold, he gives a keen-edged sword
(Defend with it thy little Lord!),
For incense, smoke of battle red.
Myrrh for the honoured happy dead;
Gifts for his children terrible and sweet,
Touched by such tiny hands and
Oh such tiny feet.
In his setting for a cappella choir (which our own choir has sung many time at Epiphany), Howells captures each of the various moods evoked in this evocative poem.
Here is Howells’s Here is the little door
sung by Chanticleer, from their album
Sing We of Christmas.