Church Going Summary by Philip Larkin
Church Going, written in 1954, is a monologue in which the speaker discusses the futility and the utility of going to a church. It clearly reveals the social context of the time when it was written. It was a time of general decline in the attendance in churches which had begun to take place in 1945.
The poem expresses a view that faith and belief in religion must die but that the spirit of tradition represented by the English church cannot come to an end. Larkin’s agnosticism becomes more understandable if we look at this poem in the national and the international context of the post-war years. The poem refers both to the erosion of the Church as an institution and to the perpetuation of some kind of ritual observance. In other words, the poet here explores different perceptions of the same event (the event being the decline of attendance in the churches). Some readers take this poem as a religious poem but Larkin strictly contradicts to this idea of interpretation. He says, “It is of course an entirely secular poem. I was a bit irritated by an American who insisted to me it was a religious poem. It isn’t religious at all. Religion surely means that the affairs of this world are under divine supervenience, and so on, and I go to some pains to point out that I don’t bother about that kind of thing, that I am deliberately ignorant of it-Up at the holy end’, for instance”. In the poem, the speaker (who is undoubtedly Larkin himself) says that he goes into a church and sees the matting on the floor, the seats, and a number of Bibles, flowers which had been placed inside on last Sunday, a small organ etc. He mounts the lectern, and goes through a few verses in a Bible. Then he goes back to the entrance, signs the book, drops an Irish sixpence into the charity-box, and comes out. It seems to him that it was not worthwhile for him to come to the church. He thinks about the people who come to the church for different purposes and goes on to conclude that the importance and use of churches is going to decline. However, he is also of the view that though churches have a very little role to play in the lives of people yet the spiritual significance of the churches will never die.
ANNOTATIONS ON THE TEXT
Thud: Make a dull sound. Matting: A covering of coarse fabric (usually of straw or hemp). Sprawling: An ungainly posture with arms and legs spread about. Brass: An alloy of copper and zinc. Tense: Become tense, nervous, or uneasy. Brewed: Prepare by brewing. Reverence: Regard with feelings of respect and reverence; consider hallowed, exalted or be in awe of. Restored: Return to its original or usable and functioning condition. Mounting: An event that involves rising to a higher point (as in altitude, temperature or intensity etc.). Lectern: Desk or stand with a slanted top used to hold a text at the proper height for a lecturer. Hectoring: Be bossy towards. Pronounce: Officially declare a judgment on someone. Snigger: Laugh quietly. Sixpence: A small coin of the United Kingdom worth six pennies; not minted since 1970. Wondering: Showing curiosity. Rent: Let for money. Chronically: In a habitual and longstanding manner. Parchment: A superior paper resembling sheepskin. Cathedrals: The principal Christian church building of a bishop’s diocese. Dubious: Fraught with uncertainty or doubt. Touch: Make physical contact with, come in contact with. Riddles: A difficult problem. Random: Lacking any definite plan or order or purpose; governed by or depending on chance. Superstition: An irrational belief arising from ignorance or fear. Disbelief: Doubt about the truth of something. Weedy: Abounding with or resembling weeds. Pavement: Walk consisting of a paved area for pedestrians; usually beside a street or roadway. Brambles: Any of various rough thorny shrubs or vines. Buttress: A support usually of stone or brick; supports the wall of a building. Obscure: Make less visible or unclear. Seek: Try to get or reach. Crew: The men and women who man a vehicle (ship, aircraft, etc.). Lofts: Floor consisting of a large unpartitioned space over a factory, warehouse or other commercial space bibber. Antique: Made in or typical of earlier times and valued for its age. Addict: Someone who is physiologically dependent on a substance; abrupt deprivation of the substance produces withdrawal symptoms. Whiff: A short light gust of air. Myrrh: Aromatic resin that is burned as incense and used in perfume. Silt: Mud or clay or small rocks deposited by a river or lake. Suburb: A residential district located on the outskirts of a city. Scrub: Clean with hard rubbing. Frowsty: Stale and unclean smelling. Compulsions: An urge to do or say something that might be better left undone or unsaid. Robed: Clothed, often used in combination. Destinies: An event (or a course of events) that will inevitably happen in the future. Obsolete: No longer in use. Gravitating: Be attracted to.
SUMMARY AND COMMENT
Philip Larkin’s Church Going describes the idle curiosity of the poet/speaker for a church he comes across while out for a bike ride. It consists of 7 stanzas, each 9 lines in length. The meter is a relaxed iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is “ababcbdgb” with numerous slant rhymes appearing in lines 5 and 9. The language is typical of Larkin-ordinary, conversational, almost slangy.
The speaker wants to be sure there is nothing in the way of a church service going on. He appears more interested in the building than in the movement that brought it about. He demonstrates awkward reverence removing his hat and cuff clips. Apparently he has stopped at a number of churches. He describes this one as Another church and makes note of “matting, seats, and stone, / And little books, sprawlings of flowers cut! For Sunday, brownish now”. He seems uninterested in the denomination of the church.
In stanza 2 he moves forward, rubbing a hand over the baptismal font, speculating on the condition of the roof, climbs the lectern and says, “Here-endeth” more loudly than he had intended to. Returning to the entrance, he signs the guest book and contributes a foreign coin to the collection box, thinking the place was not worth stopping for.
In stanza 3 he questions his curious habit of stopping at churches. Once they have become totally useless, will officials keep open some cathedrals and leave the smaller churches to rain and sheep? Will
cathedrals become tourist traps and these smaller churches become attractions for ruin seekers, antique hounds, and mothers perpetuating superstitions and seeking simples (medicinal plants) to cure cancer?
It becomes clear that the title has more than one meaning. Churches were built for the once large numbers of believers who attended every Sunday, but those numbers are rapidly reducing themselves. Marriages are gradually shifting to legal events performed by lay people if indeed people donate merely choose to live together without ceremony. The same situation is replacing the elaborate requiems and funerals of earlier ages. As time goes on, the Church is playing a role of less importance in society, politics, and world events. Finally there are people like the poet/speaker – curious but not trained in history or architecture who are church goers but are unencumbered by religion. The Church may be said to be going fast. Still Larkin’s speaker: (who speaks for Larkin) cannot totally reject the human religious movement that dominated history until the twentieth century. A serious house on serious earth it is.
Philip Larkin, a contemporary poet, wrote ‘Church Going’ in the early 1950’s, after World War II, when the shattering influence of war was at its peak and there were constant social changes. Poet noticed the people’s dependence on the church was fading, which leads us to the two possible meanings of the title ‘Church Going’, the first being the weekly act of going to a church, or the fading away of the church. The poet himself wasn’t a believer in the church, he was agnostic and indifferent, and the speaker in the poem could be the poet himself or a persona adopted by him. The poem talks about the speaker’s thoughts as he enters a vast, empty church and wonders what will happen when the churches fall into disuse. At a deeper level the poem becomes an inquiry into the role of religion in our lives today.
The speaker stops at a church when he is on a cycling trip, entering it only after he has made sure that no prayer service is on. The church is just a convenient stop-off for the speaker and there is no sense of religiosity in him. The speaker sees the matting, seats and books much like any other church, and flowers from the Sunday mass which, “brownish now”, are dead. There is a “musty, unignorable silence” and a feeling of staleness in the church, and the lack of use and life in it is apparent. The speaker has no hat to take off as a mark of respect, so he takes off his cycle clips instead in “awkward reverence”, indicating that he poet feels a grudging respect for the church but is uncomfortable about it.
In a casual, detached tone the speaker moves around the church, running his hand around the receptacle of holy water and reading a few verses from the bible at the lectern, saying ‘Here’endeth’ more loudly than he had intended too. The words echoed in the room, as though joining the mockery, tired of the same mechanical practice day after day. On his way out the speaker donated a worthless Irish sixpence, reflecting that the church was not worth stopping for.
Yet the speaker says that despite that he did stop at the church and he often does, each time feeling the same way; at a loss and wondering. what will happen to the churches when they fall out of use completely. He wonders if a few will be forever on display like exhibition pieces while the rest are given to rain and sheep for use rent-free, or if we shall avoid them as unlucky places. He wonders if at night “dubious women” will come to make their children touch a stone with hearing powers, pick our herbs of medicinal value or whether they would be used as the haunts of dead people.
He goes on to say that while the church may not have religious power, it will continue to have some mysterious power. He says religion is already dead, soon superstition too will die, and when this too is dead then the physical building itself will fall to ruin. The speaker wonders that as the purpose of the church becomes more obscure with each passing week, who will be the very last person to seek the church out for its religious purpose it once served. He wonders if it’ll be a crew of archaeologists, a “ruin-bibber” lusting for antiques, a Christmas addict wanting to absorb like a sponge the atmosphere of yuletide or his “representative”. He wonders if it’ll be someone bored and uninformed like him who, aware that the last dregs of religiosity in church are dispersed, still takes the trouble of making his way through the vegetation to get there.
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