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.
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.
He then shifts his consideration to the purpose of church going and in what ways the practice
will finally cease. There is no question for him, at first, “But superstition, like belief, must die,”
he reasons (Larkin 1059). The persona then contemplates the way in which the practice will die.
He wonders if it will be a person who seeks it for its intended purpose, but this is dismissed
without further consideration. Indeed, he does not mention such a person in the list of possible
“last goers,” rather, he mentions historians, treasure-hunters, and folks who attend only
Christmas services, and those for the sake of the beautiful organ music and various traditions,
and then finally wonders if the last goer will be like himself. He is a person who is drawn to the
church for different reasons. Although “bored, uniformed,” he is not stupid like the people who
come to the church each Sunday. Nor is he a treasure-hunter or a historian. He interested in the
church for a deeper and better reason. The church is a solemn place for him, one in which “. . .
all our compulsions meet, / Are recognized, and robed as destinies. / And that much never can be
obsolete,” (Larkin 1059). He is drawn to the church because there is something there which
helps him to understand his life. There is something worth his stopping because it provides a
metaphor for him to use, a way for him to see, understand, and articulate the deeper meaning
behind his existence.
The persona then considers the relics of the church, the Bibles, Communion dishes, and the
building itself, as well as the traditions of the church goers as superstitious. However, he
includes in this analysis indications of a second opinion. The persona also considers the church
goers stupid. They go to this place he does not consider worthy of the time and they believe in
things he presumes powerless. The persona speaks of women teaching their children to touch a
certain stone as if it is cure for cancer, “To make their children touch a particular stone; / Pick
simples for a cancer. . .” (Larkin 1059). The word “simples” is a significant one, one which
holds two meanings in the poem. A simple is a medicinal herb, according to the text, but it is
also possible to hear the more common meaning of “simple-minded,” or stupid, implied here in
reference to these traditions (Ellmann and O’Clair 1059).
At first, church going considered as the act of going to a particular building, and it is shown that,
if one is clever enough, one will realize that it is just a building lacking psychological and
spiritual worth. The persona reads aloud some of the Bible on the lectern and then says, “’Here
endeth’,” the traditional phrase used to signify that the official has finished reading from the
sacred text, “much more loudly than I’d meant. / The echoes snigger briefly. . .” (Larkin 1058).
This reading is playing on the persona’s part. He is attempting to show himself, and his readers,
that there is no mystical power in the “magic words” used by the church officials. Anyone is
able to read the Scriptures, anyone can say “Here endeth,” anyone has the power to see through
the rituals of the church. The snigger of the echoes gives one the impression that the building’s
walls are participating in the joke. There is nothing sacred about the building itself. Indeed, the
persona plays with some of the church-goers’ jargon in reference to the church building itself.
He notes that, “From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-- / Cleaned or restored?” (Larkin
1058). This “cleaned or restored” or perhaps, “cleansed or restored” is similar to the
terminology used inside of the church for people who have been “born again.” His observations
are sarcastic in nature. There is nothing mystical about the building itself. The persona points
this out as the conclusion of the second stanza when he stops to “Reflect the place was not worth
stopping for” (Larkin 1058).
The persona in the poem “Church Going” by Philip Larkin, is contemplating the use and
purpose of going to church and the social and psychological functions of the practice. Echoes of
the attitude, the cynicism toward Christianity, in particular, of Thomas Hardy, a poet whom
Larkin admired greatly, can be heard in this poem (Ellmann and O’Clair 1056). While standing
in an empty church building, the persona moves through several different negative opinions until
arriving, in the concluding stanza, at one reason for churches that “. . . never can be obsolete”
(Larkin 1059). The persona admits that there is something worthwhile in church, a means for
Before considering the persona’s thoughts and impressions, it is important first to treat the
setting of the poem, a traditional, somewhat old church; probably a small church, with
traditional rooms and fixtures. It is mostly likely a Catholic church building because of the
design and features, such as the rood loft, however, it is not clearly stated. The remarks are
therefore not on any one particular denomination, but rather church going as a whole. Perhaps
the most important detail of the setting is the fact that the persona chooses to make his visit to
the church on a day other than Sunday. It is presumably in the middle of the week, due to the
details about the flowers included in lines four and five. “And little books; sprawlings of
flowers, cut / For Sunday, brownish now. . .” (Larkin 1058). In fact, there is very little said of
the actual Sunday happenings inside of the building. Rather, the inanimate building, void of
people or other signs of life (as illustrated with the mention of the dead flowers), stands as a
symbol for the act of church going, one performed by people. It is this sense of lifelessness that
comes through most clearly in the first stanza of the poem.