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Church Going - A Poem by Phillip Larkin

(text of poem here)

Poet’s Attitude:
At times Larkin is dismissive of church buildings and their religious role, at times he is conscious of their significance. These two strands run through the poem. For example in the first verse there’s his “awkward reverence” which has him removing his bicycle clips. But what is he showing reverence for? In the second verse he finds some of the bible verses “hectoring”, he leaves a useless “Irish sixpence”, there’s a hint of a snigger in his voice, which is perhaps why his echoes “snigger briefly”. And yet he signs the visitor’s book, a sign of respect. He is not part of a believing community, comes to the church when he knows he’ll be alone, but he does visit churches often (“Yet stop I did: in fact I often do”). He assumes churches will “fall completely out of use” (22) yet feels drawn to them because of their seriousness and significance: “For though I’ve no idea/What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,/It pleases me to stand in silence here;/A serious house on serious earth it is” (53-55). Though “frowsty” and “barn” seem dismissive he seems to imply that without churches we fill find it hard to feel the seriousness of things and will still be drawn to them for this reason - “someone will forever be surprising/A hunger in himself to be more serious,/And gravitating with it to this ground” (59-61). The ambiguity of his attitude is shown in the contrast between him saying on the one hand that “the place was not worth stopping for” (18), and later calling it “This special shell” (52).

Eye for Detail/Descriptions:
His takes care to describe what he sees in detail, even when he is dismissive of the value of the place - “the place was not worth stopping for”. So he notes the “little book”, “some brass and stuff”, “the small neat organ”, the font, the roof (“looks almost new”). He also tries to describe the atmosphere of the church: “a tense, musty, unignorable silence” (7).

After setting the scene in the first two verses with these detailed and atmospheric descriptions, he moves on from the third verse to reflect upon the meaning of churches. He speculates on what will happen to them when (rather than if) they fall out of religious use - perhaps they will be kept like museums (“A few cathedrals chronically on show”) , perhaps they will become ruins which sheep might shelter in (“rent-free to rain and sheep”). He reckons that some people will still frequent them out of superstition (“will dubious women come,/To make their children touch a particular stone”), some will come for nostalgia (“Christmas addict, counting on a whiff/Of gown and bands”), some will come to pillage articles of value (“some ruin-bibber randy for antique”), and some who come will be like him as he now comes to the church: “bored, uninformed ... yet tending to this cross of ground ... because it held unspilt .... what since is found only in separation - marriage, and birth/ And death and thoughts of these - for which was built/ This special shell” (6th verse). The “since” implies that society, once it has left religion behind, will not have a way to mark and build on the significance of these important things.

© Brendan O'Regan