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The first stanza introduces the narrator, apparently a cyclist, stopping to explore a deserted church. He has to make sure "there's nothing going on" before he is willing to go in; his visit is not motivated by any religious faith on his part but he recognizes "the holy end" of the room he has entered and, "in awkward reverence," removes his cycling toe-clips since he has no hat to take off.
The speaker moves forward, noting the condition of the area as he approaches "the holy end." He is familiar with the rituals and activities that take place in a church - he reads "large-scale verses" from the Bible on the lectern and mimics the priest's closing of "Here endeth the reading." He signs the attendance record and leaves an offering, even as he concludes the stop was not worth the time away from his bicycling.
Then he begins to question - so, why did he stop? Why does he frequently stop to look at churches, particularly since he ends every visit "much at a loss like this, wondering what to look for." He contemplates the fate of church buildings in the future - will a few be preserved with all the religious relics intact while the rest are left to fall into disrepair?
Will superstitions arise so that people of the future avoid them? Will those superstitions cause people to come to them to enact rituals for good luck, for cures of illnesses or to see a departed loved one? When the superstitious beliefs are lost in the passage of time, then will the building's area revert to "Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky."
The speaker wonders who will be the last "to seek this place for what it was." Perhaps an archeologist, maybe an antique hunter, possibly someone who recognizes artifacts that could still be used for Christmas decorations. Most puzzling of all, the speaker realizes the final visitor may be someone like himself.
He comes to acknowledge that he attributes no special merit or worth to the place, but is pleased that it exists and recognized major changes in the lives of people in the past - "marriage, and birth, and death, and thoughts of these." To his surprise, he admits to himself that "Though I've no idea what this accoutred frowsty barn is worth, it pleases me to stand in silence here."
The speaker concludes that deep and serious thoughts about life will always need to be recognized and honored in "a serious house on serious earth." Perhaps, he decides, churches will continue to be needed as an answer to the search for "a place to grow wise in" and in recoognition of those buried on its grounds.
The entire poem follows a rhyme pattern that can be described as ababcadcd, although some rhymes are very subtle. The structure of the poem's story follows the pattern of many sermons, starting by presenting a situation or condition, considering a variety of possibilities and the ramifications of each choice, and concluding with a personal resolution to the situation that will bear further investigation and consideration in the future.
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