A few weeks ago, while visiting Washington, D.C., I did what Philip Larkin’s speaker does in “Church Going” –– popped in on a church that showed up mid-block on a street I happened down. A half-hour to squander, I let curiosity take me. Saint Michael’s as I recall, Catholic, a church that appeared to have had its heyday in the late 19th-to-mid-century last. After WWII, many parishioners moved to the suburbs and middling-tall office buildings began their dwarfing ascent. Hard times came upon Saint Michael’s, its appearance neglected, a bit of a shambles. Thus, I thought of Larkin’s masterpiece.
Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new––
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
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. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for whom was built
This special shell? 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,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
“Church Going” is a marvelous blend of tones and tropes. Acerbic and ironically mocking as it begins, the poet’s attitude moderates as the poem unfolds, although not to any great degree until the turn in the last line of the penultimate stanza: “It pleases me to stand in silence here.” Stanzas three through six shift the rhetoric from narration and perception to inquiry, and thus we sense the poet’s attitude alter if only because speculation is more pleasing to him than what he sees and does entering the church and surmising that “the place was not worth stopping for.” What “remains when disbelief is gone?” the speaker asks, and “I wonder who/Will be the last, the very last, to seek/This place for what it was . . . “ After he rises, slowly, on a waxing tide of questions (“for whom was built/this special shell?”), the speaker stops and takes stock of his feelings: “It pleases me to stand in silence here . . . “ Thus the poem turns toward its more reverent and modest conclusion.
Larkin deflects onto “someone” the speaker’s surprise in realizing he feels “A hunger” “to be more serious.” Thus “someone” will always gravitate “to this cross of ground,” perhaps stepping down from his bike as the speaker has (“I take off/My cycle-clips in awkward reverence”), because “he once heard” the church was a “proper [place] to grow wise in.” Since decorum and dread lead most to become somber when in a churchyard cemetery, the poem ends by acknowledging the “many dead” who “lie around.”
Certainly, much of what catches the reader and advances the forward action of the poem is Larkin’s conversational tone. The poet begins, skillfully, in medias res:
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Loosely iambic, largely monosyllabic, the reader is nailed by the three stresses and the assonance on u at the end of the second line; “door thud shut.” Larkin gives us seven stanzas of nine lines each, the rhyme scheme somewhat regular, ababcdece, although there are variants, most notably in stanza six. Often the second c rhyme is slant, as in the first, second, and fourth stanzas (stuff/off, pronounce/sixpence, on/gone), and the a rhyme is repeated thrice in stanza six (“slit,” “unsplilt,” “built”). These variants hold up nicely for they never occur in the masculine rhymes of the first four lines, or in those at the ends of lines seven and nine.
The conversational tone is encoded in both Larkin’s diction and in metaphor, metonym and pun, some of which seems tongue-in-cheek. For example, Larkin does not use the word altar, actively suppressing it with his phrase in the first stanza “some brass and stuff/Up at the holy end.” He knows what that “stuff” is well enough, for he gives us, in stanza three, “parchment, plate, and pyx”; likewise, he suppresses crucifix, choosing to embed “cross” in the description of the transept (“this cross of ground”) in stanza six. The poet establishes a pretext of ignorance for the sake of maintaining a wry distance, a pose as a “Bored, uniformed” passerby, out on a lark, one who is free to “Reflect the place was no worth stopping for.”
The title, a pun, advances Larkin’s initiating tone. “Church Going” describes a practice of regular attendance at worship service, as well as the decline and ruination the speaker observes and prognosticates when he wonders what fate will befall “this accoutred frowsty barn” and its counterparts in a secular society. He is assuming a society comprised of a majority of persons such as himself who believe “the ghostly silt” of The Holy Spirit has “Dispersed,” although he’s willing to concede that some “Power of some sort or other will go on/In games, in riddles, seemingly at random”. “When churches fall completely out of use,” the speaker imagines some cathedrals will be kept “chronically on show” for tourists, and “the rest” will fall to ruin, left “to rain and sheep.”
Larkin suppresses the word “service,” at the beginning of “Church Going” when the speaker reports that he first makes “sure there’s nothing going on.” The poet does not say “Hymnal” and “The Book of Common Prayer” but rather “little book.” The organ is “small” and “neat” suggesting the middle class gentility of the parishioners. The wry disdain is deepened with “Brewed God knows how long,” an ironic quip about the duration of “a tense, musty, unignorable silence.”
The central meditation of the poem fills stanzas three through six, yet here, as in the first two stanzas, the poet burdens the diction with skeptical disdain and cynicism. The adjectives reflect this: “unlucky,” “dubious,” “particular,” “obscure,” “weedy,” “bored,” “uninformed,” “ghostly,” “special,” and especially, “accoutred frowsty” modifying “barn”. The metaphors are diminishments: the church is a “barn,” a “special shell” and the crucifix and service implements are metonymically reduced to “brass and stuff,” the altar to “the holy end”.
The shift toward a more reverent tone at the end can be located by realizing the connotations of the modifiers, verbs and verbal phrases, and comparing them to the connotations of the diction in earlier stanzas. With regard to the adjectives, besides “blent,” “proper” and “many” we find, in the final stanza, “serious” used three times. What tremendous emphasis Larkin gives to “serious”: this word alone signals an attitudinal shift from irreverent to more reverent. And the nouns here signal fundamental, last things: “house,” “earth,” “air,” “compulsions,” “destinies,” “hunger,” “ground,” the “dead.”
Larkin heaps gravitas upon the verbs and verbal phrases in the final stanza as much as he does so on the nouns and adjectives. One form or another of the verb to be is used three times (“is,” “can be,” “will forever be”), and essential, existential acts are named: “meet,” “recognized,” “robed,” “gravitating,” “grow,” “lie”. The adverbs are “obsolete,” “forever,” “more” and “wise.”
The statements made in the final stanza––the wisdom lines––are, of course, significant. The core idea, that in this “serious house on serious earth” where “all our compulsions meet” and “Are recognized” and sanctioned (the connotation I’m deriving from “robed,” as in dressed-up or enshrouded) “as destinies”––is Larkin’s sly way of suggesting he regards believers as fooling themselves. Nonetheless, he sees such self-deception as understandable. The “blend air” refers, perhaps, to light refracted through stained glass and mingled with incense, adding to the “serious” atmosphere a tint of the supernatural. The speaker regards this human hunger to have our desires (or sins?) recognized (my reading of “compulsions”) and “robed as destinies” as a sanctifying that “never can be obsolete”. It is the poet’s belief that inevitably a person “will forever be surprising/A hunger in himself to be more serious.” I doubt this since many people I know are interested in becoming less serious, but this is Larkin’s wisdom line, not mine.
“Church Going” is an atheist’s poem, an ironic atheist’s poem, and a very good one. I remember once hearing the poet, Jack Gilbert, say that one can distinguish the work of a good poet from the work of a great poet primarily by the effectiveness with which the latter controls tone. I always find considerations of tone and of mood an interesting pursuit. Tone conveys the attitude of the poet toward the subject of the poem; mood is evoked in and felt by the reader. Larkin’s shaping of tone in “Church Going” makes the poem successful, more than any other device, although certain he uses a plethora of devices––rhyme, meter, form, figuration, alliteration––to name a few. The mood it evokes in me is one of satisfied bemusement: I enjoy the movement of the poet’s mind, and since I am an atheist, I am engaged by the questions the speaker asks. I can imagine a reader who is a Christian, perhaps a devoted member of the Church of England or even a Lutheran, left in an entirely different mood.