Philip Larkin’s poem, Church Going, is an exploration into the future of religiosity in modern life. Post Second World War, there arose a disassociation with religious discourse in most of the European countries, and many literati plunged into creation of art and literature that mused on the futility of observing the pious way of life.
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The 1954 poem, Church Going, expresses such concerns . Larkin wrote the poem after Second World War, which market a time when the general audience at churches declined significantly. The rampant violence and destruction of the Second World War created generations of skeptics who abhorred faith and religious discourse.
The poem is an exposition of the erosion of the old beliefs of the religious institution delimited by the church. Larkin shows that life has changed and so has the belief systems that governed it. This essay argues that the main theme of the poem, Church Going, is depletion of the credence in religious institution and transformation of Churches into edifices of artistic exuberance.
The poem begins with a monologue in seven stanzas. The first two are narratives. The narrator describes his unplanned, solitary visit to a church. He descends his bicycle, enters the church, and muses on its interiors – floor matting, the rows of seats, the Bibles, and the flowers kept for the mass last Sunday. The narrator looks around the church and tries to acclimatize with the atmosphere:
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long.
He climbs the stand, and reads a few verses from the Bible. He then moves back to the entrance of the church and drops a few pennies in the donation box.
The general impression that the narrator exudes is that he is a non-believer. However, at the end of the first stanza, he admits to a feeling of “awkward reverence” for the atmosphere that the church creates (67). In the second stanza, he climbs up the lectern, and amuses himself, by reading the Bible, and pretending that he is reading it to a fictional congregation. He therefore states, “he echoes snigger briefly” (67).
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The rest of the poem is his musing on the future that lay ahead of such churches, for he believes that there will be less number of believers in future. He is almost sure that a time will come when the “churches fall completely out of use” (67). In the third stanza, the narrator muses, out of curiosity, the fate of cathedrals and concludes that they will be preserved simply as buildings of historic importance, while churches will remain abandoned, to be used as barns:
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
The fourth stanza is again a musing of the narrator where he wonders if the desolate churches will become places of interest for the superstitious lot who would like to throng these desolate churches to rivet the last traces of spiritual power. The fifth stanza is reminiscent of the narrator’s idling about the future of the churches and how they might become an attraction for antiquarians.
However, in the sixth the narrator reverts back and calls churches of future “accoutered frosty barn” (68) and in the seventh stanza, he states that churches will always be successful in attracting visitors for varied reasons: “someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious” (68). The narrator further explains that the church will retain its serious demeanor: “serious house on serious earth” (68).
The main theme of the poem Church Going is the futility of visiting a church to pray. The tone of the narrator, which in turn can be assumed to be Larkin himself, is half-disdainful and half-serious. The narrator is contemptuous of the habit of visiting churches and derides the various instruments of the church.
However, at the end of the poem, he feels that people will still find a utility of churches, even if the forte of the churches may metamorphose from a religious to artistic or antiquity discourse, but they will remain as a place to be visited. However, the narrator is almost sure that the time is not far off when people will not visit churches and give up any form of religious way .
The narrative monologue of Church Going presents a definite antagonism towards visiting religious institution like a church. The narrator at point seems unequivocal nonbeliever. As Larkin himself was agnostic, it can be intuitively assumed that the narrator that he created was too a skeptic.
The crux of the argument presented in the poem is that the institutions of religion will continue to provide some solace and entertainment to certain group of people even after the general demise of the belief in God . Essentially, Larkin rejects the traditional religious discourse of churches being the house of God and believes that future will reject even the concept of the institution.
Church Going presents the future institution of religion in a humorous light. The irony in the poem is acute and to a great extent amusing:
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. (Larkin 68)
The irony lies in the conflict that the narrator shows towards churches. He is definitely a nonbeliever, who does not think that a building, though richly decorated, can be a seat of greater power. However, he ends up visiting the church, unplanned; and he confesses that he often visits the church. Another ironical narration found is that the narrator’s assumptions into who could be the last visitor to these churches.
The irony lies in his conclusion that the very last person visiting the church could be a person who believes that he is doing so for transcendent enlightenment. The irony becomes further pronounced in the last stanza where the narrator says that the last few existing churches will still be visited even if only by people who are eager to expand their awareness from the graves in the churchyard.
Church Going is an exposition into the state of mind of a young Englishmen in the post war years . The destructions and corruption of the war disassociated young men from religious beliefs and concern for the world. When one reads the poem, the image of the narrator that comes to our mind is that of a young man, clumsy, not very rich (as he rides a bike and not a car), and full of uncertain ideologies. Further, the poem is full of contradictions.
For instance, Larkin’s narrator speaks of the religious institution with skepticism of an nonbeliever, and on the other hand, shows knowledge of the religious rituals and artifacts: “parchment, plate, and pyx” (67). This evidently indicates the contradictions between the narrator’s discoursed knowledge and his present beliefs . Another interesting transformation that the poem undergoes is a subtle movement from the singular, first person narration, to a plural voice .
This is a characteristic style of Larkin, which predicts assent of the readers with the ideas disseminated in the poem . Further, the poem presents the idea that though the religious beliefs of the future world will avert the religious way, but the innate spirit of the churches will remain untarnished. However, a fear of the loss of importance of this discoursed house of God lingers throughout the poem.
Another aspect that can be interpreted from the poem is the interior of the church space disassociates man from Nature, which is the outside. The narrator feels isolated, not only from the religious beliefs that the church disseminates, but also from Nature. One of the problems that the narrator states is “what to look for” (67). The disassociation of the narrator with the institution is evident in the poem and eventually turns into a common reminiscent of post war English society.
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