Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 853
Written the same summer as “Toads,” “Church Going” also first appeared in Larkin’s remarkable little book The Less Deceived. Each of the two much-admired poems illustrates the book’s emphatic focus on relative disillusionment. The punning title “Church Going” is typically Larkinesque, implying both “attending church” and “the vanishing church.” A further irony is that Larkin’s “church goer” is a sole drop-in to whom the empty edifice is alien and puzzling, not supportive or enlightening.
As sobriety varies from playfulness, the persona of “Church Going” varies from that of “Toads.” Yet the loneliness and dissociation from human company that one perceives in the speaker and the recognition that he contemplates an important modern dilemma tie him to the “toad-dominated” worker. One added strength of “Church Going” is its firm grounding in a concrete setting and situation, allowing Larkin’s skeptical preachment about the irrelevance of the church to occur without much offense, from the ironic opening phrase onward: “I am sure there’s nothing going on/ . . . inside.” Eventually the speaker wonders “who/ Will be the last, the very last, to seek/ This place for what it was.” Imagery of a church in ruins dominates the poem at its climax: “Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky.” (Conjured images of Tintern Abbey, or other stereotypically English ruins, here summarize the coming fate of churches in England that the speaker sees.) The balanced melancholy of the poem finds the church, though a “place . . . not worth stopping for,” to be nonetheless “A serious house on serious earth” that pulls people toward it, a place “proper to grow wise in,/ If only that so many dead lie round.” The imaginative range of the poem, moving as it does from the concrete to the abstract and universal, from “disbelief” to a future time when even that may be a forgotten human stage, gives it distinction and significance.
Formally “Church Going” is like an ode, a stanzaic lyric poem that develops and explores a serious topic at some length. Each of its seven stanzas comprises nine iambic pentameter lines—the numerology seeming, like religion itself, to tap into the prerational. A complex stanzaic rhyme scheme, ababcadcd, employs full and approximate (half or slant) rhymes freely. Skill with subtle metrical variations—trochaic substitutions, caesuras, enjambments, feminine endings—keeps the lines flowing like talk, much in the manner to which readers of Robert Browning’s monologues, or of Larkin’s lyrics, are accustomed. As usual Larkin’s speaker is syntactic, at once colloquial and formal in his assertions. His sharp imagery draws the church interior in the first two stanzas: “sprawlings of flowers, cut/ For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff/ Up at the holy end; the small neat organ.” The “musty, unignorable silence” has “Brewed God knows how long.” When the man reads “Here endeth” to an empty sanctuary, “The echoes snigger briefly.”
As in “Toads”—and following the lead of his disavowed mentor Yeats—Larkin has his speaker engage in questions, a useful device for exploring alternatives: “Shall we avoid [churches] as unlucky places?” “And what remains when disbelief has gone?” and “I wonder who/ Will be the last . . . to seek/ This place for what it was?” “Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,/ Or Christmas-addict?” In such an inquisitive context, the speaker’s varied assertions hold their ground: “Power of some sort or other will go on,” “It pleases me to stand in silence here,” or “someone will forever be surprising/ A hunger in himself to be more serious,/ And gravitating with it to this ground.”
In this serious meditation on the post-Christian age, Larkin’s witty glints lighten the tone. As the persona, for example, wonders if in future eras “we shall keep/ A few cathedrals chronically on show” and “let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep,” his word “chronically” plays on “perpetually” while suggesting something like a lingering illness, and “let” as “lease” introduces a playful figurative situation, with sheep as renters. The “crew” of cathedral-hounds who “tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were” are mildly satirized as the eventual last “church goers,” just as the phrases “this accoutred frowsty barn” (where “frowsty” means unkempt and musty), “randy for antique,” and “Christmas-addict” all trigger weak smiles. The mild self-denigration that occurs in various details, hinting that the biker is a bit of a perplexed bumblehead, likewise entertains.
The speaker’s “serious” view is clearly that the church is irrelevant and “obsolete,” appeals to superstition, plays a riddling power game, and is destined to fade into vague memory, even as so many church structures in England already have. Nonetheless, nostalgia for inaccessible certainties remains. In that tangential respect, the speakers in “Church Going” and “Toads” are alike: Each looks wistfully at a pattern of living that he seems constitutionally unsuited to embracing and suffers an emotional isolation that seems to be his fate. As in Hardy’s poems and novels, there is no possibility that by strength of will the persona can remake himself into something he is not. The final lines hint bleakly that one “grows wise” only in the company of the dead.