#1 “Church Going” (Philip Larkin)

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.

5 responses to “#1 “Church Going” (Philip Larkin)

  1. Well, I guess my opinion was a little different. I thought that the description of the church was really good. I could see everything exactly and smell the church smells…the incense and all. I think that maybe he at one time might have lost someone dear to him after having prayed a great deal. I think that he might have been remembering times having been at the church and recalled mothers taking maybe sick children to the church “To make their children touch a particular stone;” for healing. I think that when someone is brought up a certain faith/religion and gone to church as a child, as the persons ages, the familiarities of the ways and everything that goes with it stays with them. One can be brought up a certain religion and as a n adult be a different religion, yet the ways of the learned ways as a child remains. i think a part of him doesn’t believe in God for again maybe not answering a prayer, yet still there is another part that wants to believe and give it another try. To move on. To move forward. Maybe he is wanting to try to move on and try again.

  2. In the poem “Church Going,” my thoughts turned to the Apostle Paul. In the Bible, Paul says, “In the end, if all of this Christ and faith stuff turns out to be a hoax, and I was bamboozled; then I would have been the most miserable person to have ever lived because I gave up everything for my faith. But I am going to keep believing and trusting just in case it ends up being real.” I feel that the speaker in Larkin’s poem was experiencing what many church goers experience. Sometimes, you can’t help wander what is the point of believing if things don’t change and suffering in the world continues. Matthew Arnold was confronted with the same unbelief/belief issue that the speaker in Larkin’s poem was silently debating while standing in church. Arnold says, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead / the other powerless to be born.” I feel Arnold and Larkin are saying I can’t accept religion but I can’t do without it either. Religion will never become obsolete because someone will always gravitate to a “serious house on serious earth” seeking to become wise.

  3. This poem was very long. While reading it, the poem had my attention at the beginning but my attention began to fade as I read in to the middle of it. So I had to read over and over again. But interestingly enough, I began to gain interest by the last few paragraphs. Not because I was almost done with reading it but because the man in the poem began to realize that a church doesn’t have to look new and even have a lot of people in it to be a church. A church only need is people and a mutual belief.

  4. This was indeed a great poem. Although I could argue that it doesn’t belong at number one, I won’t because it is worthy of a very high rating. I have come to believe that if we all had read the 64 poems on our own, there would have been as many different views on which one would be considered number one as there are students in the class.
    Having said that, I did truly enjoy this poem and definitely was able to connect with it. I found it to be an interesting mix of religion and personal intrigue in the church, the building and the religious tradition. Having read this poem, it does make one wonder what really happens to unused church structures? Do they still retain their religious standard even though they are free of people? I am reminded of Poem number 2 and the images that exist on the urn and how they cannot fulfill their desires due to the fact that they cannot move. It is something that I never thought about but is so extremely interesting that I’m mad that I didn’t think about it. So it is with Church Going and the question “What happens to the church building once people stop going?”
    This question is one that I’m sure can be answered and depending on your religious views it can range from tearing the structure down to allowing it to “live” due to its religious background. Some may even ask “Who cares?”.

  5. This poem really got my attention and definitely made me interested in it. The poem and the speaker do raise up a provoking thought or question that has to do with religion. I’m glad that he did because it seems that people always want to avoid the hard and uncomfortable questions; so I’m glad and happy how the speaker doesn’t mind and still talks about the issue being avoided. I’ve always wondered to myself where or what happened to the people that once attended abandoned churches; or in other religious cases, their holy sancutaries. The speaker’s really eager to find out why religion–most especially chrches–has declined; to me it seems like the author’s confused and doesn’t know what to think or believe but then at the same time he knowws that he wants to do something about it but just doesn’t know how or what. I feel like the reason religion has declined is because new beliefs about religion are being introduced which results in the constant change of people’s. For example, say someone believed that God existed but then heard some theories or something from somewhere that got them to change their minds, then it leads to the person’s disbelief in that God and hence the discontinued practice of that person’s religion. I loved thos poem and the description used in it–it was rich.

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