The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588

“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.

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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 its English equivalent.

After the narrative/descriptive beginning, the poem changes direction. The narrator wonders why he stopped at the church, why he often stops at churches. What is he looking for? Before answering that question, however, he asks another. What will happen to church buildings when we stop using them as churches? This is not an entirely irrelevant question for a man who has lost his faith and who assumes that others will do likewise.

He imagines that some churches will become museums, while others will fall to ruin. They might be avoided as places of bad luck, or approached as places for magical cures. Certainly, there will be superstition associated with these places for a time, the narrator observes, but even superstition will eventually fade.

Who will be the last to remember what church buildings were used for, he wonders: an archaeologist perhaps, who would know the name for the rood-loft, the high beam between the choir and the nave that held a cross or crucifix, or someone looking for an antique or a decorative artifact. It might be a “Christmas-addict,” assuming with comic irony that the celebration of Christmas will go on long after Christianity has been forgotten. Or it might be someone like the narrator, someone who comes to “this cross of ground” (traditional English churches are laid out like crosses) looking for something.

This last thought returns the narrator to his original question: What is it that he is looking for? And now he is ready to venture a tentative answer. This place has held “what since is found/ Only in separation—marriage, and birth,/ And death, and thoughts of these.” The importance of these moments was recognized here. Furthermore, church buildings have been places for serious thoughts, and even when they are no longer used for worship, they will still be sought by people who need to be serious. It is a place that is “proper to grow wise in,/ If only that so many dead lie round.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 359

“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)...

(The entire section contains 947 words.)

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