Church Going Questions and Answers
1. Write a critical appreciation of the poem Church Going .
Church Going is a poem in which the speaker (who is undoubtedly Larkin himself) discusses the futility and the utility of going to a church. The discussion is half-mocking and half-serious. The speaker scoffs at the church and its equipment; and he scoffs at church-going, though at the end of the poem he finds that the churches, or at least some of them, would continue to render some service to the people even after they have ceased to be places of worship. According to the speaker, a time is coming when people would stop going to churches altogether, because they would have lost their faith in God and in divine worship. Then a time is also coming when people’s disbelief in God and their superstitions would come to an end too. Eventually, however, some people might still visit the decayed and disused church buildings on account of some inner compulsion or to derive some wisdom from the sight of the many graves in the churchyard.
Church Going is a monologue in which the speaker frankly appears as an agnostic if not as a downright atheist. As Larkin himself was a skeptic or an agnostic, we are justified in thinking that the speaker in the poem is Larkin himself. The upshot of the whole argument in the poem is that the churches would continue to provide some sort of emotional or spiritual solace to some people even after the current belief in God and in a future life has collapsed and given way to skepticism or agnosticism. Thus, while Larkin dismisses the concept of a church being a house of God, he yet believes that churches would continue to serve some emotional or spiritual purpose even after people’s rejection of the current religious beliefs. Church Going is really an interesting, and even entertaining, poem. A vein of irony runs through the poem; and particularly amusing are the following lines:
“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.”
Also amusing are the lines in which the speaker speculates as to the identity of the last, the very last, person who might visit a church in the belief that he is visiting the house of God for his spiritual edification. However, we do not share the view that the last stanza is also ironical or has any mockery in it. The last stanza seems to express the poet’s view that a few at least of the forsaken, deserted, and ruined churches would continue to be visited by some people, if for no other reason, then only to draw some wisdom from the sight of the numerous graves in the churchyards. After all, the thought of death, to some extent, does make us wiser.
One of the critics says that the speaker in the poem Church Going begins the poem by banishing any signs of holy dread. The speaker appears as an interloper or intruder, slightly goofy or silly, disrespectful, bored, and uninformed. He introduces religion on his own terms, speaking as someone without faith, and as someone trying to recover the comfort which faith used to provide. He sees no indication that people can fill the gap created by the general loss of faith in God. Only structures (that is, church buildings) would remain; and these structures would become reliable by repetition: “marriage and birth/And death, and thoughts of these.”. The glow of sanctity may have faded from such things, but the things themselves remain, depending on custom for their validity. ““It pleases me,” Larkin says, in the last line of the last but one stanza, “to stand in silence here” (that is, in an empty church). This critic also says that, in this poem, Larkin’s dilemma is not whether to believe in God but what to put in God’s place. Larkin is here concerned not with religion but with going to church. The title of the poem suggests a union of the important stages of human life-birth, marriage, and death-which going to church represents. In other words, the poem describes a strictly secular faith and its author’s speculations about what churches would become when they have fallen completely out of use. The speculations lead the poet to a conclusion in which the fear of death and the loss of religious belief are counter-acted by an unshakable faith in human and individual potential. (This conclusion is reached in the final stanza of the poem). According to another critic the poem Church Going fits the programmed of the Movement by carefully balancing agnostic dissent with an inclination to accept tradition and belief. According to this critic, Church Going is a poem which is both reverent and irreverent. Besides, the poem has a traditional iambic structure and a lucid, rational argument. The speaker in the poem is presented as an ordinary, fallible, and clumsy individual. Another critic says that Church Going is a poem which shows the persistence of both the English Church and the English poetic tradition. According to yet another critic; Church Going presents in concentrated form an image of the post-war Welfare State Englishman in the lines “Hatless. I take off/ My cycle-clips in awkward reverence”. It is the image of a shabby Englishman who is not concerned with his appearance but who is poor, having a bike not a car, who is gauche (or clumsy) but full of agnostic piety; who is under-fed, under-paid, over-taxed, hopeless, bored, and wry. According to another critic, the punning title of this poem demonstrates both the erosion of the Church as an institution, and the persistence of some kind of ritual ceremonies. The speaker in this poem responds to conflicting attitude, and also uses a variety of speech-forms. The speaker here is “bored” and “uninformed”, and yet he appears to be knowledgeable and articulate about such things as “parchment, plate, and pyx.”. This apparent contradiction shows how Larkin’s speakers are constructed in a way which allows a poem to explore different perceptions of the same event. The final stanza of this poem expands the poem’s observations by making the experiences of the speaker representative:
“A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, Are recognized and robed as destinies
And that much never can be
obsolete…….” The subtle movement from the first person singular to the first person plural (we or our) is a characteristic device in Larkin’s poetry, and one which is predicated upon the assent of its readers. In this way, the poem is able to accommodate both a skeptical view of religious rituals (“robed as destinies” suggests an act of make-believe) and an assertion of the continuing value and significance of these rituals. Even so, the question of “what remains when disbelief is gone” is an indication of how radical and unsettling the agnosticism in Larkin’s poems can be. An essential aspect of the social context of this poem (written in 1954) is the marked and general decline in religious attendance at churches after 1945 (the. year of the end of World War 111). At the beginning of 1950, less than ten per cent of the population I was church-goers. The poem Church Going embodies what may be called secular Anglicanism which concedes that belief must die but which also insists that the spirit of tradition represented by the English Church cannot die. As the Church seems to lose its importance, there fare fears that its place in modern society would become insignificant. The poem Church Going acknowledges those fears, and reveals its own specific context by locating “this cross of ground” at the edge of “suburb scrub”.
Another critic says that, Larkin often makes a sharp distinction between Nature outside and man’s enclosure inside a building, a scene which dramatizes man’s separation from Nature. The poem Church Going seems to alter this habitual consciousness of Nature by focusing initially on the inside of a building to the exclusion of its surroundings. The poet begins his encounter with the church building by describing the contents of the building; but the distinctions between what is outside in Nature, and what is inside in man’s architectural dominion, begin to blur. The building is seen by the poet às surrounded by the forces of Nature and perhaps soon to be merged with them. He imagines the decaying edifice being eventually let “rent-free to rain and sheep”; thus Nature itself will enter the church and become part of it, for will simply take over the church completely. The destructive forces of Nature are even now merging with the elements of the building: “grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky”-all these coalesce. They increasingly nullify the church and its function, making of it “a shape less recognizable each week / A purpose more obscure”. Plants grow up in the cracks (“weedy pavement”), and the church building is gradually merging with its surroundings. In fact, the larger setting of the building becomes almost as important as the church itself. The poet sees it as “a serious house on serious earth”, and as existing on a symbolic “cross of ground”. These references to the churchyard tend to make it seem that Nature has some potential religious significance as well, at least it is set apart from the unattractive “suburb scrub”.
surrounding it. Religion remains ambiguous or indefinable though, either through an inherent lack in the church’s ability to communicate its value or through the poet’s own lack of comprehension. In some sense, the church building-which also contains some aspects of Nature-becomes the all-important setting which the poet must interpret, much as the romantic poets went outside to learn Nature’s moral lessons from the vernal woods. Characteristically, the speaker in this poem feels isolated from this setting, both in its reference to Nature and to religion. The basic problem, as the poet defines it, is that he does not know “what to look for”. Does the meaning of the church reside in the historical past (“it held unspoilt so long and equably what since. is found only in separation”), or in the still existing symbols of its spiritual function in worship (the “parchment, plate, and pyx” which he imagines salvaged from the decaying church buildings and with them put “on show”). He tries to answer this question by wondering what kind of person would be “the last, the very last, to seek this place for what it was”. This is an important distinction to make because the last person to do this would be the one who can still interpret what the church means, or can derive from it something that he wants even though the church is now at the outer limits of disintegration. This particular function, then, would be the one which is most durable, and thus ultimately the most important. And the end of the poem declares that this durable function would be performed by the churchyard which makes the church proper a place to grow wise in, if only because so many dead persons lie buried outside it. Yet even this perception is immaterial in relation to the spiritual power of the place itself, apart from its Christian symbolism. The poet visualizes the potentially ruined church as still providing a reason for superstitious people to visit it:
“Or, after dark, will dubious women come….
To make their children touch a particular stone;” or to perform some other superstitious rites. This is the closest the poet comes to seeing Nature itself as possessing some sort of inherent religious and spiritual meaning. But the tone is emphatically ironic, and the seekers after cures are merely women who are traditionally gullible. Thus the poem Church Going is unusual in figuratively merging Nature with a building; yet it still shows the speaker courteously detached from the forces of Nature, as they suggest spiritual meaning or invite an emotional response. This critic agrees with the view that the poem is not a veiled message in support of Christianity, but says that the poem .shrewdly and accurately defines the multiple sides of the dilemma of redundant churches and what they represent, namely a religious tradition in decline. There both is not seriousness, wisdom, and comfort to be derived from an empty church building. The church’s main function as a place for worship is long gone, though it still has its value as a historical relic.
2. Comment on the persona of Philip Larkin in the poem.
The persona in the poem “Church Going” by Philip Larkin, is contemplating the use and purpose of going to church and the social and psychological functions of the practice, the attitude, the cynicism toward Christianity, in particular, of Thomas Hardy, a poet whom Larkin admired greatly, can be heard in this poem (Ellmann and O’Clair 1056). While standing in an empty church building, the persona moves through several different negative opinions until arriving, in the concluding stanza, at one reason for church…….never can be obsolete”. The persona admits that there is something worthwhile in church, a means for understanding life.
Before considering the persona’s thoughts and impressions, it is important first to treat the setting of the poem, a traditional, somewhat old church; probably a small church, with traditional rooms and fixtures. It is mostly likely a Catholic church building because of the design and features, such as the rood loft, however, it is not clearly stated. The remarks are therefore not on any one particular denomination, but rather church going as a whole. Perhaps the most important detail of the setting is the fact that the persona chooses to make his visit to the church on a day other than Sunday. It is presumably in the middle of the week, due to the details about the flowers included in lines four and five. “And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut/ For Sunday, brownish now……..”. In fact, there is very little said of the actual Sunday happenings inside of the building. Rather, the inanimate building, void of people or other signs of life (as illustrated with the mention of the dead flowers), stands as a symbol for the act of church going, one performed by people. It is this sense of lifelessness that comes through most clearly in the first stanza of the poem.
At first, church going considered as the act of going to a particular building, and it is shown that, if one is clever enough, one will realize that it is just a building lacking psychological and spiritual worth. The persona reads aloud some of the Bible on the lectern and then says, “Here endeth’,” the traditional phrase used to signify that the official has finished reading from the sacred text, “much more loudly than I’d meant. / The echoes snigger briefly……..”. This reading is playing on the persona’s part. He is attempting to show himself, and his readers, that there is no mystical power in the “magic words” used by the church officials. Anyone is able to read the Scriptures, anyone can say “Here endeth,” anyone has the power to see through the rituals of the church. The snigger of the echoes gives one the impression that the building’s walls are participating in the joke. There is nothing sacred about the building itself. Indeed, the persona plays with some of the church-goers’ jargon in reference to the church building itself. He notes that, “From where I stand, the roof looks almost new– / Cleaned or restored?”. This, “cleansed or restored” is similar to the terminology used inside of the church for people who have been “born again”. His observations are sarcastic in nature. There is nothing mystical about the building itself. The persona points this out as the conclusion of the second stanza when he stops to “Reflect the place was not worth stopping for”.
The persona then considers the relics of the church, the Bibles, Communion dishes, and the building itself, as well as the traditions of the church goers as superstitious. However, he includes in this analysis indications of a second opinion. The persona also considers the church goers stupid. They go to this place he does not consider worthy of the time and they believe in things he presumes powerless. The persona speaks of women teaching their children to touch a certain stone as if it is cure for cancer, “To make their children touch a particular stone;
/ Pick simples for a cancer.………… .”. The word “simples” is a significant one, one which holds two meanings in the poem. A simple is a medicinal herb, according to the text, but it is also possible to hear the more common meaning of “simple-minded.” or stupid, implied here in reference to these traditions.
He then shifts his consideration to the purpose of church going and in what ways the practice will finally cease. There is no question for him, at first, “But superstition, like belief, must die,” he reasons. The persona then contemplates the way in which the practice will die. He wonders if it will be a person who seeks it for its intended purpose, but this is dismissed without further consideration. Indeed, he does not mention such a person in the list of possible “last goers,” rather, he mentions historians, treasure-hunters, and folks who attend only Christmas services, and those for the sake of the beautiful organ music and various traditions, and then finally wonders if the last goer will be like himself. He is a person who is drawn to the church for different reasons. Although “bored, uniformed”, he is not stupid like the people who come to the church each Sunday. Nor is he a treasure-hunter or a historian. He interested in the church for a deeper and better reason. The church is a solemn place for him, one in which all our compulsions meet, / Are recognized, and robed as destinies. / And that much never can be obsolete,”. He is drawn to the church because there is something there which helps him to understand his life. There is something worth his stopping because it provides a metaphor for him to use, a way for him to see, understand, and articulate the deeper meaning behind his existence.
1. Comment on the appropriateness of the last stanza of the poem.
Larkin is describing the church as a building where nothing can be outdated, a place where someone will always find himself drawn back to the church in a quest for a higher spiritual presence. A spiritual house on spiritual ground, where the need to know our meaning are explained as are destiny. The need to confirm our spirituality is ever present and many find a surprising urge to confirm their spirituality and destiny. He is attracted to this spiritual house on spiritual ground where he has heard wisdom is given. The “dead that lie around” the spiritual ground have gained the wisdom of spirituality and have finally met their destiny.
2. Analyze the title of the poem.
The title is worthy of examination. Deceptively simple, the title “Church Going” is very clever as it has two interpretations. The first refers to the act of weekly worship, usually on a Sunday, and Phillip. Larkin will go on to consider the traditions and future potential of this practice. The second interpretation in the word “going” refers to the action of the buildings and institutions themselves and which way they will be going in the future. Larkin lays out his thoughts about this as the poem develops, and his prognosis is not good. He views the churches as falling into disrepair as society moves on from blind adherence to religion, and wonders where it will all lead. He imagines in his mind’s eye, the churches as ruins with weeds and grass growing up between the floor slabs and wonders whether anyone will want to buy them and what use they might put the buildings to.
3. Analyze the tone of the poem.
The tone of the poem engages the reader in a sort of conversation with the poet as he thinks aloud in the inhibiting silence of the musty old building. We are deliberately told that, even for Larkin himself, his visit to the church is just an add-on, a convenient stop-off on a cycling trip. With the first words of the poem being: “Once I am sure there’s nothing going on I step inside, letting the door thud shut”. Larkin puts readers in a particular spot in time, as if they too, had come along with the poet for the ride, and are breaking their journey with him. He uses a curiously detached and objective tone, however, as if he is an outsider in the church looking in at the practice of religious observation as if he has no role in it. He emphasizes this with the word “hatless” as he disregards this mark of respect. Language such as “brownish“
and “musty” illustrate his view that the church is past its best, and may one day be totally obsolete, and contribute to the themes of Time, Religion, Function and Society..
VERY SHORT QUESTIONS
1. Where does the poem occur?
‘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.
2. What is the context of the title?
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.
3. What does title instantly suggest us?
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 for other reasons, and is not himself a believer or worshipper.
4. How does the title contract itself?
But ‘Church Going’ also glimmers with another meaning: the idea that the church, as institution, is going’ or fading from view: :
5. What is Larkin’s intention?
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.
6. Note the proliferation of references to endings in the poem.
The altar is referred to, unethically, 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’.
7. What does Larkin confide in eventually?
Larkin confides that he always ends 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.
8. Has the poet actually explored any church?
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.
9. How does Larkin end the poem?
Larkin ends by praising the church as a ‘serious house’ built on ‘serious earth’, as a place that takes our natural compulsions and ‘robes’ them in religious ceremony.
10. What is Larkin’s argument about the quality of the church?
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 themseives more serious’ and contemplative
11. What does Larkin conclude into?
Larkin concludes, are fine places to cultivate wisdom, not least because they remind us that our time on Earth is short.
12. Is the vision significant?
‘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.
13. Does the poet see the importance of the church?
He nevertheless-sees the importance of cultural rituals and traditions as giving a shape and momentousness to the ‘rites of passage’ in our lives.
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