The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Church Going,” a poem of seven nine-line stanzas, is a first-person description of a visit to an empty English country church. The narrator is apparently on a cycling tour (he stops to remove his bicycle clips), a popular activity for British workers on their summer holiday. He has come upon a church and stopped to look inside. Not wishing to participate in a worship service, the visitor checks first to make “sure there’s nothing going on.” He will eventually reveal that he is an agnostic and that his interest in churches is not derived from religious faith.

This church is empty, so he walks in, observing all of the usual accoutrements: “matting, seats, and stone,/ And little books.” His irreverence is captured in his tone as he observes “some brass and stuff/ Up at the holy end.” Yet he is not totally irreverent. He knows that he should take off his hat, but he is not wearing one. Instead, he removes his bicycle clips.

As he moves around the building, he touches the baptismal font, observes the roof, and climbs into the lectern to look at the large-print lectionary. He even plays church for a moment, speaking the words (“Here endeth the lesson”) that are usually announced at the end of each scripture reading. Clearly, he has some familiarity with religious practices. He also knows enough to leave an offering in the alms box at the door of the church. All he leaves, however, is an Irish sixpence, a coin worth less than...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Church Going” looks and sounds almost casual in its structure, but that appearance is deceptive. The poem is, in fact, an expertly constructed work. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is complexly intertwined: ababcadcd. The middle lines (lines 5 and 6) reverse the expected alternating rhymes.

Furthermore, the rhyme is so subtle as to be almost unnoticed in the reading. Only a few of the rhyming words are exact rhymes, and these are often very ordinary words (for example, “door” and “for” in stanza 2, and “do” and “too” in stanza 3) that do not call attention to themselves. Other rhyming words are half-rhymes (also known as imperfect rhymes, near rhymes, or slant rhymes). These words have similar vowel sounds, or similar consonant sounds, but not both. Some of the many half-rhymes in “Church Going” are “on,” “stone,” and “organ,” and “silence” and “reverence.”

The other dominant structural device in the poem is rhetorical. “Church Going” carefully follows the structure of the meditation, beginning with a detailed description of a place, leading to an internal debate, and finally reaching a tentative conclusion. Larkin’s place, a church, is evoked in sufficient detail to let readers re-create it in their minds and imagine themselves there with the narrator. The internal debate begins in stanza 3 and continues through the beginning of stanza 6. Here the narrator raises many questions, answering none of them. The questions explore the possible significance and uses of church buildings once people no longer use them for religious worship. What will happen when their purpose has been forgotten? The questions lead inevitably to considering why the narrator himself is drawn to these places.

His conclusion, which begins halfway through stanza 6, remains tentative. The narrator discovers some important purposes for church buildings, at least for himself, and he offers them for his readers to consider. True to the meditation format, the poem does not seek to prove a point logically or solve a problem absolutely. Instead, it allows the mind to take direction from the external environment and consider various aspects of an issue, letting the discussion lead to a new discovery. That discovery may be a momentary resolution, not the final answer.