The best church poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Poetry and the church have enjoyed a long interconnected history, but what are the very best English poems about churches specifically, rather than simply ‘the church’? What great poems have been set in churchyards or among pews, at the altar or in the church crypt? The selection below constitutes our attempt to compile a ‘top ten’ of the finest church poems in all of English literature.
George Herbert, ‘Church-Monuments’. This poem sees the great devotional poet George Herbert lying in a church tomb in order to accustom his body and soul to the fact that he will one day lie at rest in such a church monument – forever. The poem is especially notable for its gendered depiction of the body (as male) and soul (as female).
Edward Herbert, ‘Echo in a Church‘. Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) was actually George Herbert’s older brother, and also a (minor) poet in his own right. In this poem he fuses a Christian setting – in a church – with the classical myth of Echo, the woman who loved Narcissus. The critic Mary E. Rickey has observed that Edward Herbert’s ‘Echo in a Church’ is ‘the first example of the use of the echo form for devotional purposes’, and that Edward’s poem inspired his brother George to write several church poems using the ‘echo’ form.
Thomas Gray, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’. Of course, this classic eighteenth-century poem had to feature in our list of the best church poems! The ‘country churchyard’ referred to in the poem’s title belonged to St Giles’ parish church at Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire. Gray’s Elegy (as it’s often known) was partly inspired by the death of another poet, Richard West, in 1742, but became a grand meditation on death and the simple memorials left behind by rustic village folk rather than statesmen and celebrated figures. The poem also gave Thomas Hardy the phrase ‘far from the madding crowd’ for use as the title of his fourth published novel.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church’. This poem turns the idea of ‘going to church’ on its head, as its opening line suggests: Dickinson recreates the ‘church’ within her own home, with a ‘Bobolink’ (a bird) as the chorister, and God as the ultimate ‘Clergyman’ leading the service. Truly Emily Dickinson – who lived as a hermit at her father’s home throughout her life – knew what it was to have a personal Jesus…
Thomas Hardy, ‘In Church’. This is not one of Thomas Hardy’s best-known poems, but then Hardy’s vast poetic oeuvre contains many hidden gems waiting to be discovered. ‘In Church’ catches a glimpse of what the priest does when he goes into the vestry after the service – performing the same ‘pulpit gesture’ he had just enacted in front of the rapt and moved congregation. Is the priest’s service all an act, the young pupil wonders? Thomas Hardy was an atheist but remained ‘churchy’ (in his own word) throughout his life, and ‘In Church’ shows how the church continued to exercise a certain fascination for him.
A. E. Housman, ‘Bredon Hill’. Bredon (pronounced ‘Breedon’) in Worcestershire is the setting for this, one of the many gems to be found in A. E. Housman’s 1896 collection, A Shropshire Lad. (The fact that Bredon Hill is in Worcestershire rather than Shropshire may seem odd given the title of Housman’s most famous volume of poems, but the poet himself was a Worcestershire lad.) The focus is on the tragic romance of the poem’s speaker, whose lover dies; hearing the insistent church bells calling him to worship, the speaker reluctantly agrees to go to church and save his soul.
Robert Graves, ‘A Boy in Church’. Like Hardy’s poem, this poem (as the title indicates) is about a child sitting through a church service; like Emily Dickinson’s poem, it’s a poem about the true ‘church’ being found amongst the world of nature, or in the mind, rather than in the bricks and mortar and bells and whistles of the actual physical church.
John Betjeman, ‘Diary of a Church-Mouse’. A fine example of Betjeman’s Chaucerian style, ‘Diary of a Church Mouse’ (1954) is another piece of gentle mockery of a certain class of person – here, fair-weather Christians who use the church when it suits them but are nowhere to be seen for most of the year. Betjeman uses animals to make his point, and it’s not hard to see why this has become one of Betjeman’s most popular poems – it appeals to people of all ages, and even those who miss the satire.
Philip Larkin, ‘Church Going’. A meditation on the role of the church in a secular age, written by a poet who described himself as an ‘Anglican agnostic’, ‘Church Going’ is one of Larkin’s most popular poems from The Less Deceived. In the poem, the speaker of the poem visits a church on one of his bicycle rides and stops to have a look inside – though he isn’t sure why he stopped. The title carries a double meaning: both going to church (if only to look around, rather than to worship there), and the going or disappearing of churches, and the Church, from British life.
Geoffrey Hill, ‘Mercian Hymns IX’. Possibly the greatest post-war religious poet writing in English, Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016) wrote some of the finest but most challenging poetry of the second half of the twentieth century. Mercian Hymns is a cycle of prose-poems fusing ancient Saxon Britain with modern, colloquial speech and the contemporary world (the opening poem in the volume describes Offa, the 8th-century King of Mercia in the English Midlands, as ‘overlord of the M5’). Wendy Cope memorably parodied the distinctive style of Mercian Hymns in her ‘Duffa Rex’. This ninth poem from the cycle describes a church ceremony in a way which spans time (‘Edwardian Rolls’ being a reference to a Rolls-Royce car, of course) and offers a taste of why Hill, as well as being a great religious poet, could also write great poetry about churches.
If you enjoyed this pick of great church poems, linger on hallowed ground a while longer with these great poems about school, our pick of the best poems about heaven, and these classic religious poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): St Michael’s Church, East Coker (picture: Oliver Tearle, 2014). Image (bottom): All Saints’ Church, Harworth, Notts., by Richard Croft via geograph.org.uk.