A reading of a classic Larkin poem
‘Church Going’ is one of Philip Larkin’s best-loved poems. It appeared in his second full collection of poetry, The Less Deceived (1955). In this post, we’d like to offer some notes towards an analysis of ‘Church Going’, which can be read here.
The title, ‘Church Going’, is not hyphenated, to allow for a secondary meaning to be glimpsed – or, in fact, a tertiary meaning, since ‘Church Going’ is itself already carrying a double meaning. It immediately suggests going to church as an act of worship, but Larkin is not a ‘church-goer’ in that sense: he visits the churches (something, he tells us, he ‘often’ does) for other reasons, and is not himself a believer or worshipper. But ‘Church Going’ also glimmers with another meaning: the idea that the church, as institution, is ‘going’ or fading from view. (Larkin’s titles often centre on such goings: see ‘Going’ and, indeed, ‘Going, Going’, as well as his ‘Poetry of Departures’.)
Then we come to the first line: ‘Once I am sure there’s nothing going on’. ‘Going’ again, this time in the popular idiom ‘going on’. Of course, Larkin means ‘once I’m sure I’m not interrupting a service or ceremony’, but his choice of words invites, again, the idea that there is nothing going on inside the church these days: nothing of any great moment or significance anyway. Note the proliferation of references to endings in the poem: the altar is referred to, untechnically, as ‘the holy end’ of the church, while the snippet of biblical verse which Larkin recites, louder than he’d intended to, is, tellingly, ‘Here endeth’ (as in ‘Here endeth the lesson’, though the lopping off of the final two words homes in on the idea of something coming to an end). Larkin confides that he ‘always end[s] much at a loss’ when visiting churches. Throughout, there is a sense of the churches falling further into disuse, of something coming to an end.
Indeed, once he has briefly explored the church, Larkin begins to meditate on the future of the church, and whether it will continue to have significance. Will ‘dubious women’ who are fond of superstition (perhaps with ‘Gypsy’ blood?) bring their children to touch a stone of the church as a good omen? Or people come to pick herbs and ‘simples’ from the churchyard in an attempt to cure cancer? Who will be the very last person to visit the church – a‘ruin-bibber’, one who likes to go in search of old antiques? Or someone who retains a fondness for the ceremony and trappings of Christianity (Christmas, and the like), but harbours no religious belief? Or will it be someone like Larkin himself, who values churches because they were once a distillation of some of the most important aspects of our lives: birth (Christenings), marriage (weddings), and death (funerals).
Larkin then ends by praising the church as a ‘serious house’ built on ‘serious earth’ (i.e. the graveyard, hallowed ground), as a place that takes our natural compulsions and ‘robes’ them in religious ceremony. For Larkin, this quality alone ensures that churches will continue to exercise a fascination and importance for some people, especially those who find themselves seized by a surprising urge to make themselves more ‘serious’ and contemplative. And churches, Larkin concludes, are fine places to cultivate wisdom, not least because they remind us that our time on Earth is short (as the many gravestones around the church make plain).
‘Church Going’ is about something that is fading from view, something that Larkin sees as carrying value and significance, even though he rejects the literal truth of Christianity. He nevertheless sees the importance of cultural rituals and traditions as giving a shape and momentousness to the ‘rites of passage’ in our lives. In the last analysis, ‘Church Going’ is perhaps the greatest Christian poem written by a non-Christian, and a fine, if measured, paean to the continued worth of churches in secular times. As he says elsewhere of something else, ‘Let it always be there.’
Continue to explore Larkin’s life and work with our commentary on his ‘Going, Going’, our thoughts on his famous ‘Toads’ poem, our summary of his ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, and our biographical trivia about Larkin. You can get hold of all of Larkin’s essential poetry with The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, which we’d thoroughly recommend.