By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Philip Larkin wrote several poems about religion, such as ‘Church Going’, and memorably described it as a ‘vast moth-eaten musical brocade’ in ‘Aubade’. Larkin had a sceptical attitude to religion, being an atheist and self-described ‘Anglican Agnostic’ – like Thomas Hardy, Larkin had a fondness for the language and literature of the Anglican Church.
‘Water’ is an unusual Larkin poem in several ways, as the following short analysis aims to highlight. You can read Philip Larkin’s ‘Water’ here.
‘Water’ was written in 1954, a year before he went to work at the library of Hull University. The poem is unusual not least because, unlike many of Philip Larkin’s poems, it’s written in free verse, with no rhyme scheme or regular metre; only a handful of his other famous poems, such as ‘Going’, ‘Days’, ‘Afternoons’, and ‘Solar’, are similarly unrhymed and in free verse. (Even ‘MCMXIV’ has some rhymes.)
This lends the poem a chatty and loose feel, its simple language and unadorned poetic style making Larkin’s point as clear as a glass of water. This may be significant given the simplicity of the religion which Larkin’s poem envisions.
And what is that religion? In summary, one that would ‘make use of water’. (It’s unsurprising that a librarian, who spent his days among dry, dusty books, should have penned this paean to hydration!) Many religions, of course, make use of water, especially the various sects of Christianity which include baptism as a holy ritual or sacrament: whether it’s the baby’s head being wetted by water from the font, or complete immersion into the water, many Christians have been baptised, and water has symbolised the purification of that person’s soul in preparation for a life of religious devotion.
But Larkin’s hypothetical religion would place water even more at the centre of things: people going to his church would regularly come into contact with water, ‘fording’ (wading?) towards special, dry clothes which they would change into, following their weekly baptism or dunking. The religious sermon and holy text, the ‘liturgy’, would feature watery imagery. And the most powerful symbol of all, perhaps, would be the humble glass of water, which would be raised ‘in the east’ (symbolising new births and beginnings?).
What does this all mean? What Larkin cleverly does in ‘Water’ is take familiar symbols and rituals – familiar, in particular, to those who know the traditions of Christianity – and alter or recalibrate their significance. Where in Christianity baptism is a one-off ritual, in Larkin’s church it would be a regular part of church attendance.
The liturgy of Christianity is known for its images of fire (‘fire and brimstone’ being a slang term for a particularly fierce brand of militant sermonising, drumming ideas of hellfire into the churchgoers), but Larkin’s holy writ would conversely be full of watery imagery, albeit delivered in a ‘furious’ and ‘devout’ manner. The chalice of red wine that is used in Holy Communion or the Eucharist to represent the blood of Jesus Christ becomes, in Larkin’s liquid religion, a glass of nothing other than water itself.
There is a call to strip away the complexities of holy doctrine, of ideas of transubstantiation and consubstantiation (i.e. what the red wine in that chalice really represents), and worship instead the life-giving natural properties of water, one of the few actual essentials for living. This is where the poem’s simple, clear, free-verse style helps to convey the poem’s message of simplicity.
It’s easy to over-analyse a poem like ‘Water’, but its images do raise questions about what Larkin is exactly suggesting about religion. The poem’s final image of ‘any-angled light’ suggests, furthermore, that Larkin’s religion would not be about division and exclusion, but would welcome everyone, since water brings us all together by our common need for it.