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This is an incredibly important poem from the works of Philip Larkin, the famous English poet. One of his hobbies was visiting old churches in the countryside of Britain of which there are many, but interestingly he was a devout atheist. In this poem he talks about the possible future of churches and also comments on the kind of need that they fulfil even for the cynics like himself.
The poem starts with the speaker entering the church he is visiting once he is sure "there is nothing going on." He finds the "unignorable silence" of the church to impact him, and he takes of his bicycle-clips as a sign of "awkward reverence." As he looks around the church and then leaves, he reflects that the place "was not worth stopping for." However, in the third stanza, he addresses this dilemma talking about why he did stop:
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use...
Larkin thus addresses the paradox that causes him to keep stopping and visiting churches, and then begins to consider the future of religion and churches in England, which he saw as being phased out by changes in culture. To his mind, church was becoming "A shape less recognisable each week/A purpose more obscure." However, in spite of these musings about the extinction of churches and the fact that Larkin views this church as an "accoutred frowsty barn," it nevertheless pleases him to "stand in silence here." This leads us to the final stanza, where he talks about the way that religion and churches will always have a role in the future:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
Thus, according to Larkin, churches will always have some kind of role, because all of our "compulsions" meet together in this "serious house on a serious earth." Churches satisfy the unexplainable "hunger in ourselves to be more serious," that comes to all of us, even the most hardened atheist such as Larkin. This "hunger" leads us to places like churches, which were "proper to grow wise in." It is typical of Larkin that he ends the poem with an ironically humorous note, suggesting that churches are only good to "grow wise in" because of the dead that there are there.
Finally it is important to note the multi-layered meaning of the title. "Church going" is about going to churches and visiting them at one level, but also it is talking about the passing of churches from culture and this present time, considering their extinction and what possible uses they will be put to in the future. This is a great poem so I hope you enjoy it!
A continuation of the above :
The speaker comes back to churches despite everything because for a long time they held marriage, birth and death together which are now found only in separation as they are becoming more legal in nature. He calls the church an “accoutered frowsty barn” in an ambivalent tone, but then goes on to talk of the church as “a serious house on serious earth” where the natural human drives, desires and processes are acknowledged, sanctified and made into ones destiny.
The speaker starts off as cynical to begin with but he nullifies the negative ideas himself by saying that this sacramental aspect of the church will never be obsolete. It will never be archaic because there will always be someone like him who will have the hunger to become more serious and gain in wisdom. Thus the poet says that the reason why he always gravitates with that hunger to churches is because he once heard that they were the proper place to learn the essence of life and grow wise in, “If only that so many dead lie around.” This last line again could have two connotations, the first being that you gain in wisdom at churches despite the fact that so many dead lie around, and the second being that one grows wise in churches because that’s where all the wisdom of the generations of people who have died there is accumulated.
Philip Larkin, a contemporary poet, wrote ‘Church Going’ in the early 1950’s, after World War II, when the shattering influence of war was at its peak and there were constant social changes. Poet noticed the people’s dependence on the church was fading, which leads us to the two possible meanings of the title ‘Church Going’, the first being the weekly act of going to a church, or the fading away of the church. The poet himself wasn’t a believer in the church, he was agnostic and indifferent, and the speaker in the poem could be the poet himself or a persona adopted by him. The poem talks about the speaker’s thoughts as he enters a vast, empty church and wonders what will happen when the churches fall into disuse. At a deeper level the poem becomes an inquiry into the role of religion in our lives today.
The speaker stops at a church when he is on a cycling trip, entering it only after he has made sure that no prayer service is on. The church is just a convenient stop-off for the speaker and there is no sense of religiosity in him. The speaker sees the matting, seats and books much like any other church, and flowers from the Sunday mass which, “brownish now”, are dead. There is a “musty, unignorable silence” and a feeling of staleness in the church, and the lack of use and life in it is apparent. The speaker has no hat to take off as a mark of respect, so he takes off his cycle clips instead in “awkward reverence”, indicating that he poet feels a grudging respect for the church but is uncomfortable about it.
In a casual, detached tone the speaker moves around the church, running his hand around the receptacle of holy water and reading a few verses from the bible at the lectern, saying ‘Here endeth’ more loudly than he had intended too. The words echoed in the room, as though joining the mockery, tired of the same mechanical practice day after day. On his way out the speaker donated a worthless Irish sixpence, reflecting that the church was not worth stopping for.
Yet the speaker says that despite that he did stop at the church and he often does, each time feeling the same way; at a loss and wondering what will happen to the churches when they fall out of use completely. He wonders if a few will be forever on display like exhibition pieces while the rest are given to rain and sheep for use rent-free, or if we shall avoid them as unlucky places. He wonders if at night “dubious women” will come to make their children touch a stone with hearing powers, pick our herbs of medicinal value or whether they would be used as the haunts of dead people.
He goes on to say that while the church may not have religious power, it will continue to have some mysterious power. He says religion is already dead, soon superstition too will die, and when this too is dead then the physical building itself will fall to ruin. The speaker wonders that as the purpose of the church becomes more obscure with each passing week, who will be the very last person to seek the church out for its religious purpose it once served. He wonders if it’ll be a crew of archaeologists, a “ruin-bibber” lusting for antiques, a Christmas addict wanting to absorb like a sponge the atmosphere of yuletide or his “representative.” He wonders if it’ll be someone bored and uninformed like him who, aware that the last dregs of religiosity in church are dispersed, still takes the trouble of making his way through the vegetation to get there.
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