And the best short poem in the English language since 1798 is . . .
Philip Larkin’s “Church Going.”
This poem was the final exam text for ENGL 2303 this semester, and as such the class has already dealt with it, so I don’t need to use this post to explicate the poem. In any case, except for an unusually high percentage of specialized or “dictionary” words that make good sense once you look them up, “Church Going” isn’t mysterious or obscure. If anything, it’s more rhetorical than the typical poem on the Countdown. It tells a brief story that sets up an internal debate in the speaker’s mind about faith and the material trappings of faith.
“Church Going” is also not particularly lyrical. I think Larkin shows extraordinary control in its phrasing, with great precision of language and his usual intellectual concision. But it’s not a poem in the Keatsian mode, not like Trumbull Stickney’s “Mnemosyne” or other poems on our list that revel in the music of language.
“Church Going” is, however, noble and of a high seriousness. It is an intellectual successor to “Dover Beach.” It forms a context for Larkin’s own concerns in other poems, like “Aubade” (written later) where he dismisses religion as a “vast moth-eaten musical brocade,” or his famous “High Windows” (not on our Countdown), with its brash cynicism:
I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest.
In some respects, “Church Going” is a Victorian poem written in the mid-20th century, a poem about a kind of religious faith that has ceased to exist. The speaker is hardly nostalgic for that faith per se. But he is certain that the desire for faith, if not any particular faith, will persist. Instead of Matthew Arnold’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” Larkin’s speaker has a certain faith in, well, people like Matthew Arnold:
someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground
As always in Larkin’s work, this Victorian sentiment is hedged about with self-deprecating cynicism. But not self-flagellating cynicism. The speaker is a bit of an idiot:
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly.
He leaves “an Irish sixpence” (worth a little less than a dime) and shows the church in question not much respect at all. And as in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” he is largely ignorant about what he observes, and not much inclined to do any research to enlighten himself. But despite being a half-hearted idiot, the speaker is not a buffoon. He wants to take things seriously, but his culture has left him almost no room in which to be serious. The only place that doesn’t make fun of him for having a serious side is a deserted, neglected building. The building and its faith are “obsolete.” But the man standing in their midst isn’t. He expresses perhaps the profoundest dilemma, and in its midst the most persistent hope, that the 20th century could express.