Philip Larkin’s Church Going reveals his views on religion and the value of the church through describing a biker’s encounter with a church he often passes. Larkin shows the meaning of Christianity and its place in society by contrasting its physical and spiritual aspects. As church-goers attempt to explain life, he questions their sincerity, and the reasoning behind venerating a space, which is merely physical. Although Larkin acknowledges a “gravitating” pull to the Church, he is nonetheless skeptical of its power to explain the meaning of life.
In the first stanza, Larkin describes his first hesitant entrance into the church, in which he feels strangely uncomfortable. Larkin relies on assonance to depict a vivid image of the church’s interior. The words “door thud shut,” “sprawling of flowers,” “small neat organ,” and “tense, musty,” each reflect the meaning. The period after “thud shut” also emphasizes the sound of the door closing, and the feeling of entrapment in the church.
The punctuation at the end of the stanza is also similar to the feelings evoked, with an unusual break after “I take off,” leaving the reader with a possible interpretation of the biker taking off to see the remainder of the church, and then clarifying by continuing in the next line to explain that he is in fact taking his cycle clips off instead of a hat. Larkin mocks the church’s religious meaning by describing strictly its visual aspects, and labeling it as “another church: matting, seats, and stone;” cold and simple words that are pertinent to any building.
By saying “another church,” he is also implying that it is yet another building, which is no different from thousands of other pieces of architecture. Larkin also demeans the purpose of spiritual things in the church, such as hymn books and the Alter by respectively describing them as “little books” and the “holy end. ” These show his detachment from the church, and his lack of appreciation for symbolism within the church. The “unignorable silence” that results in awkwardness is a reflection of Larkin’s opinion that religion society’s justification for hope, yet the actual church bears no meaning.
The silence is similar to the emptiness; although the cyclist feels is not religious, he nonetheless feels uncertain and uneasy, and is moved to show respect in the church. In the second stanza, as the persona “move[s] forward,” he begins to notice more of the visual things inside the church. As he notices writing, he pauses to examine it, however as soon as he reaches a point where he must reflect on the religious aspect of the prayer, he ignores it and continues to describe the architecture of the church, commenting on the renovation, and proceeding to mount the lectern to preach “here endeth.
” Larkin shows the irony of these words as “the echoes snigger briefly” is linked to the title of the poem, through which there is a sense of the gradual disappearance of the church, and its irrelevance in modern life and the contemporary society. The words “here endeth” serve to show the church’s redundancy, while also showing ironically suggesting that his church going is not ending, and thus the echoing sniggers are coming from an imaginary audience.
As soon as he realizes that he is becoming involved in the religious aspect of the church, the cyclist brings the reader back to the door, and shows that he holds no attachment to the church, other than the traditional respect that one shows in a religious atmosphere. He proceeds to convince himself that “the place was not worth stopping for,” in part because he is afraid of the influences that religion may have on him, but also because he is reluctant to accept the church, as it is ultimately losing its significance in society.
While the persona enjoys visiting churches, he is unable to articulate the reason why he continually stops to explore them. Upon leaving the church, he offers an Irish sixpence, worthless “play” money. While the offering is in some ways mocking, it recalls Ireland as a religious society, and reflects Yeats’ early influence on Larkin. Yeats’ emphasis on ritualistic ceremonies outside of traditional Christianity could have been the reason for the persona’s donation. 1
The punctuation in the second stanza is also relevant to the way in which Larkin portrays the cyclists’ meditation in the church. By posing the question “cleaned, or restored? ” and breaking up the line with a question mark, Larkin shows that uncertainty within the persona, confusing the reader with unusually placed pauses. He continues to vary the sentences, making them choppy and short, “someone would know: I don’t,” and “the echoes snigger briefly,” to recreate the feelings of solitude that the cyclist feels while wandering the church.
Larkin continues to reveal the incomplete feeling within the cyclist that pushes him to keep searching for a deeper meaning that he is convinced can be found in the church, and religion. Not only did he stop at this church, he often finds himself wondering about other churches as well. Admitting his frustration at his inability to understand religion, he explains that although he was unsuccessful at connecting to this church, this is not unusual for him, “Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,/And always end much at a loss like this,/wondering what to look for.
” Although churches have no traditional sacramental significance for him, he yearns to feel the power they exert on others. While he fails once again at realizing the meaning behind religion, he is understandably frustrated by his recurring disappointment at not feeling enlightened. Larkin, most of whose poems are shorter than “Church Going,” may have intentionally made this one longer, as he struggled throughout his life to explore the reason that he was drawn to frequently visit churches, yet was unable to grasp the emotions that he craved.
After he leaves the church, the speaker spends the remainder of the poem contemplating the value of religion, and its place in both his life and society’s. Larkin’s repetition of the word “wondering” in “wondering what to look for; wondering, too,” shows his respect for the church’s sanctity, while simultaneously emphasizing his unawareness. The persona is aware of the church’s past importance, however he questions what will come of religion in the future.
Larkin often incorporates this sentiment of looking forward to analyze the downfall of humans in the modern world, and sees religion as an excuse created to justify various actions. As Larkin debates what will replace churches in the future, he once again relies on the physical aspects of the church to describe religion. He notes the “parchment, plate and pyx” that will eventually become a part of the museum like attitude towards religion. However, he ignores the spiritual value of the church, placing an emphasis on its structure and physical importance. Larkin thus reveals the speakers nai??
veti?? about the ways in which religion affects society. As he poses the possibility of letting “the rest rent-free to rain and sheep,” Larkin shows the ultimate dominance of nature over religion. Thus, he reveals his perspective on religion; its relative phoniness and parallel to superstition. Larkin is convinced that nature will take its course regardless of religion, and that the future is predetermined. Through the use of alliteration, Larkin allows the stanza to flow and thus shows the reader the simplicity of leaving religion, and the plain, fast life that it will leave behind.
The “parchment, plate, and pyx,” as well as “let the rest rent-free to rain” both serve to make the stanza have a smooth sound. The pause that occurs from the line break after “if we shall keep/a few cathedrals” is an important characteristic of Larkin’s poetry. Until the reader reaches the next line, there is a different meaning to the phrase “if we shall keep,” in which Larkin ponders the human capacity to survive without religion. However, he brings the reader back the physical, discussing the cathedrals and their interiors, avoiding the issue of religion.