"Church Going" by Philip Larkin

Introduction



Church Going, written in 1954, is a monologue in which the speaker discusses the futility and the utility of going to a church. It clearly reveals the social context of the time when it was written. It was a time of general decline in the attendance in churches which had begun to take place in 1945.
The poem expresses a view that faith and belief in religion must die but that the spirit of tradition represented by the English church can not come to an end. Larkin’s agnosticism becomes more understandable if we look at this poem in the national and the international context of the post-war years. The poem refers both to the erosion of the Church as an institution and to the perpetuation of some kind of ritual observance. In other words, the poet here explores different perceptions of the same event (the event being the decline of attendance in the churches). Some readers take this poem as a religious poem but Larkin strictly contradicts to this idea of interpretation. He says, “It is of course an entirely secular poem. I was a bit irritated by an American who insisted to me it was a religious poem. It isn’t religious at all. Religion surely means that the affairs of this world are under divine supervenience, and so on, and I go to some pains to point out that I don’t bother about that kind of thing, that I am deliberately ignorant of it—‘Up at the holy end’, for instance”.


In the poem, the speaker (who is undoubtedly Larkin himself) says that he goes into a church and sees the matting on the floor, the seats, and a number of Bibles, flowers which had been placed inside on last Sunday, a small organ etc. He mounts the lectern, and goes through a few verses in a Bible. Then he goes back to the entrance, signs the book, drops an Irish sixpence into the charity-box, and comes out. It seems to him that it was not worthwhile for him to come to the church. He thinks about the people who come to the church for different purposes and goes on to conclude that the importance and use of churches is going to decline. However, he is also of the view that though churches have a very little role to play in the lives of people yet the spiritual significance of the churches will never die.

Critical Appreciation

Larkin’s Thoughts on Visiting a Church

Church Going is a poem in which the speaker (who is undoubtedly Larkin himself) discusses the futility and the utility of going to a church. The discussion is half-mocking and half-serious. The speaker scoffs at the church and its equipment; and he scoffs at church-going, though at the end of the poem he finds that the churches, or at least some of them, would continue to render some service to the people even after they have ceased to be places of worship. According to the speaker, a time is coming when people would stop going to churches altogether, because they would have lost their faith in God and in divine worship. Then a time is also coming when people’s disbelief in God and their superstitions would come to an end too. Eventually, however, some people might still visit the decayed and disused church buildings on account of some inner compulsion or to derive some wisdom from the sight of the many graves in the churchyard.

Church Going is a monologue in which the speaker frankly appears as an agnostic if not as a downright atheist. As Larkin himself was a sceptic or an agnostic, we are justified in thinking that the speaker in the poem is Larkin himself. The upshot of the whole argument in the poem is that the churches would continue to provide some sort of emotional or spiritual solace to some people even after the current belief in God and in a future life has collapsed and given way to scepticism or agnosticism. Thus, while Larkin dismisses the concept of a church being a house of God, he yet believes that churches would continue to serve some emotional or spiritual purpose even after people’s rejection of the current religious beliefs. Church Going is really an interesting, and even entertaining, poem. A vein of irony runs through the poem; and particularly amusing are the following lines:

The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door

I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,

Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do.

Also amusing are the lines in which the speaker speculates as to the identity of the last, the very last, person who might visit a church in the belief that he is visiting the house of God for his spiritual edification. However, we do not share the view that the last stanza is also ironical or has any mockery in it. The last stanza seems to express the poet’s view that a few at least of the forsaken, deserted, and ruined churches would continue to be visited by some people, if for no other reason, then only to draw some wisdom from the sight of the numerous graves in the churchyards. After all, the thought of death, to some extent, does make us wiser.

Critics’ Comments

One of the critics says that the speaker in the poem Church Going begins the poem by banishing any signs of holy dread. The speaker appears as an interloper or intruder, slightly goofy or silly, disrespectful, bored, and uninformed. He introduces religion on his own terms, speaking as someone without faith, and as someone trying to recover the comfort which faith used to provide. He sees no indication that people can fill the gap created by the general loss of faith in God. Only structures (that is, church buildings) would remain; and these structures would become reliable by repetition: “marriage and birth/And death, and thoughts of these.” The glow of sanctity may have faded from such things, but the things themselves remain, depending on custom for their validity. “It pleases me,” Larkin says in the last line of the last but one stanza, “to stand in silence here” (that is, in an empty church). This critic also says that, in this poem, Larkin’s dilemma is not whether to believe in God but what to put in God’s place. Larkin is here concerned not with religion but with going to church. The title of the poem suggests a union of the important stages of human life—birth, marriage, and death—which going to church represents. In other words, the poem describes a strictly secular faith, and its author’s speculations about what churches would become when they have fallen completely out of use. The speculations lead the poet to a conclusion in which the fear of death and the loss of religious belief are counter-acted by an unshakable faith in human and individual potential. (This conclusion is reached in the final stanza of the poem). According to another critic the poem Church Going fits the programme of the Movement by carefully balancing agnostic dissent with an inclination to accept tradition and belief. According to this critic, Church Going is a poem which is both reverent and irreverent. Besides, the poem has a traditional iambic structure and a lucid, rational argument. The speaker in the poem is presented as an ordinary, fallible, and clumsy individual. Another critic says that Church Going is a poem which shows the persistence of both the English Church and the English poetic tradition. According to yet another critic ; Church Going presents in concentrated form an image of the post-war Welfare State Englishman in the lines “Hatless, I take off/My cycle-clips in awkward reverence”. It is the image of a shabby Englishman who is not concerned with his appearance but who is poor, having a bike not a car; who is gauche (or clumsy) but full of agnostic piety; who is under-fed, under-paid, over-taxed, hopeless, bored, and wry. According to another critic , the punning title of this poem demonstrates both the erosion of the Church as an institution, and the persistence of some kind of ritual ceremonies. The speaker in this poem responds to conflicting attitude, and also uses a variety of speech-forms. The speaker here is “bored” and “uninformed,” and yet he appears to be knowledgeable and articulate about such things as “parchment, plate, and pyx.” This apparent contradiction shows how Larkin’s speakers are constructed in a way which allows a poem to explore different perceptions of the same event. The final stanza of this poem expands the poem’s observations by making the experiences of the speaker representative:

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized and robed as destinies

And that much never can be obsolete…….

The subtle movement from the first person singular to the first person plural (we or our) is a characteristic device in Larkin’s poetry, and one which is predicated upon the assent of its readers. In this way, the poem is able to accommodate both a sceptical view of religious rituals (“robed as destinies” suggests an act of make-believe) and an assertion of the continuing value and significance of these rituals. Even so, the question of “what remains when disbelief is gone” is an indication of how radical and unsettling the agnosticism in Larkin’s poems can be. An essential aspect of the social context of this poem (written in 1954) is the marked and general decline in religious attendance at churches after 1945 (the. year of the end of World War II). At the beginning of 1950, less than ten per cent of the population were church-goers. The poem Church Going embodies what may be called secular Anglicanism which concedes that belief must die but which also insists that the spirit of tradition represented by the English Church cannot die. As the Church seems to lose its importance, there are fears that its place in modern society would become insignificant. The poem Church Going acknowledges those fears, and reveals its own specific context by locating “this cross of ground” at the edge of “suburb scrub ”.

Another critic says that, Larkin often makes a sharp distinction between Nature outside and man’s enclosure inside a building, a scene which dramatizes man’s separation from Nature. The poem Church Going seems to alter this habitual consciousness of Nature by focussing initially on the inside of a building to the exclusion of its surroundings. The poet begins his encounter with the church building by describing the contents of the building; but the distinctions between what is outside in Nature, and what is inside in man’s architectural dominion, begin to blur. The building is seen by the poet as surrounded by the forces of Nature and perhaps soon to be merged with them. He imagines the decaying edifice being eventually let “rent-free to rain and sheep”; thus Nature itself will enter the church and become part of it, or will simply take over the church completely. The destructive forces of Nature are even now merging with the elements of the building: “grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky”—all these coalesce. They increasingly nullify the church and its function, making of it “a shape less recognizable each week/A purpose more obscure”. Plants grow up in the cracks (“weedy pavement”), and the church building is gradually merging with its surroundings. In fact, the larger setting of the building becomes almost as important as the church itself. The poet sees it as “a serious house on serious earth”, and as existing on a symbolic “cross of ground”. These references to the churchyard tend to make it seem that Nature has some potential religious significance as well, at least as it is set apart from the unattractive “suburb scrub” surrounding it. Religion remains ambiguous or undefinable though, either through an inherent lack in the church’s ability to communicate its value or through the poet’s own lack of comprehension. In some sense, the church building—which also contains some aspects of Nature—becomes the all-important setting which the poet must interpret, much as -the romantic poets went outside to learn Nature’s moral lessons from the vernal woods. Characteristically, the speaker in this poem feels isolated from this setting, both in its reference to Nature and to religion. The basic problem, as the poet defines it, is that he does not know “what to look for”. Does the meaning of the church reside in the historical past (“it held unspoilt so long and equably what since is found only in separation”), or in the still existing symbols of its spiritual function in worship (the “parchment, plate, and pyx” which he imagines salvaged from the decaying church buildings and with them put “on show”). He tries to answer this question by wondering what kind of person would be “the last, the very last, to seek this place for what it was”. This is an important distinction to make because the last person to do this would be the one who can still interpret what the church means, or can derive from it something that he wants even though the church is now at the outer limits of disintegration. This particular function, then, would be the one which is most durable, and thus ultimately the most important. And the end of the poem declares that this durable function would be performed by the churchyard which makes the church proper a place to grow wise in, if only because so many dead persons lie buried outside it. Yet even this perception is immaterial in relation to the spiritual power of the place itself, apart from its Christian symbolism. The poet visualizes the potentially ruined church as still providing a reason for superstitious people to visit it:

Or, after dark, will dubious women come

To make their children touch a particular stone;

or to perform some other superstitious rites. This is the closest the poet comes to seeing Nature itself as possessing some sort of inherent religious and spiritual meaning. But the tone is emphatically ironic, and the seekers after cures are merely women who are traditionally gullible. Thus the poem Church Going is unusual in figuratively merging Nature with a building; yet it still shows the speaker courteously detached from the forces of Nature as they suggest spiritual meaning or invite an emotional response. This critic agrees with the view that the poem is not a veiled message in support of Christianity, but says that the poem .shrewdly and accurately defines the multiple sides of the dilemma of redundant churches and what they represent, namely a religious tradition in decline. There both is and is not seriousness, wisdom, and comfort to be derived from an empty church building. The church’s main function as a place for worship is long gone, though it still has its value as a historical relic.

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