What happens in the last stanza of Church Going by Philip Larkin?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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The last stanza of Church Going by Philip Larkin, as is often true with his poetry, expresses a sort of turn or change in attitude. At the beginning of the poem, we encounter a cynical sophisticated secular narrator, who is "bored", "awkward", and "uniformed", obviously not a believer, and equally obviously not entirely familiar with the rituals of the Church of England. Nonetheless, as we progress through the poem, we get a sense that there is still an echo of knowledge and reverence and a sense that the narrator has lost something in being part of a secular age. In a sense , the dimly understood promptings to visit the churches are gradually revealed as a sort of spiritual longing and a deep respect and nostalgia for  the religious past. Eventually, the narrator in a sense undergoes a conversion, recognizing:

…  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, …

Thus the narrator in this stanza finds the very wisdom and, in a sense, salvation, in the last stanza, of which he is initially sceptical at the beginning.

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vmoriarity | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Adjunct Educator

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The final stanza of Philip Larkin's poem "Church Going" seems to recognize that others will always visit churches to try to find deeper meaning in their existence than simply being born, living for a set amount of time on earth, and then dying.  Dictionary.com's third definition of compulsion is "a strong, usually irresistible impulse to perform an act, especially one that is irrational or contrary to one's will."  The speaker states that "compulsions" are recognized in the church and given higher purpose, or "robed in destinies".  This clearly refers to the Christian belief that if you accept Jesus Christ, your life will not end on earth but will continue in heaven for eternity.  This would clearly justify the challenges they encounter on earth, giving their lives more purpose. 

The speaker implies that humans will innately have a need to justify their lives, yet he points out that only dead people "lie round." (Graves and cemeteries surround churches.) The author's agnostic beliefs are clear in this final stanza, yet he does recognize that others will always search for more meaning through religion.  The tone of this final stanza implies that, while this need to justify is foolish, it will nonetheless continue as long as people inhabit the earth.


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