Poetry Sunday: Church Going

Today’s edition of Poetry Sunday features the English poet and novelist Philip Larkin. Born in Coventry in 1922, Larkin received a degree in literature from Oxford in 1943. Though he worked for most of his life as a librarian at the University of Hull, he was well-known and widely acclaimed for his poetry and his work as a literary reviewer and jazz critic. He received numerous awards for his writing in his lifetime, including the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, the German Shakespeare Prize, an honorary doctorate from Oxford, and an honorary rank of Commander of the British Empire, one step below knighthood. He was also offered the title of England’s Poet Laureate late in life, but declined the honor. Nevertheless, Larkin was recently voted England’s best-loved poet of the last 50 years in a popular poll.

Larkin’s poetry is skeptical, plainspoken, down-to-earth, occasionally bleak and pessimistic but sometimes idyllic and hopeful. A confirmed agnostic, his work was praised as being “free from both mystical and logical compulsions” and “empirical in its attitude to all that comes”. Today’s poem, “Church Going”, comes from his 1955 book The Less Deceived. In it, the poet, standing in an empty church, looks forward to the dwindling and fading of religion and wonders what, if anything, human beings will take up in its place.

Church Going

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 will 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 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 recognisable 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 which 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 recognized, 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.

Other posts in this series:

Weekend Coffee: February 22
I Get Religious Mail: If Wishes Were Airplanes
Atlas Shrugged: Bring Me a New Black Guy
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • AttemptingReason

    I liked it.

  • Dave

    Sadly seemly more a tale of Britain recent past than of modern America or a Britain apparently eager to follow in our recent “religious revival.”

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I’m startled by how strongly it echoes some of the feelings I have about churches — the obscure respect for nothing much, the recognition of a space that might be “proper to grow wise in”, that “held unspilt… marriage, and birth, and death”.

  • Warren

    After reading this poem, I immediately thought about Aesop’s story about the fox and the grapes: the fox wanted the grapes, but when he couldn’t get them he convinced himself that they were probably sour anyway. Mr. Larkin’s poem is a very personal narration by someone who habitually goes into churches searching for a feeling, but sadly never finds it. What does he lack that drives him to enter empty churches? One pictures a fellow looking for answers. Could it be that he’s just an ordinary guy searching for the meaning of life and expecting to receive some sort of feeling that explains it all. That sort of fellow will search forever because he attempts to satisfy his human need to be fulfilled by looking for a feeling from a building without first accepting the faith that built it. He is the fox that would really like something, but when faced with the reality that he has failed to obtain it, condemns the very thing he pursued.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I don’t think Larkin expects fulfilment from churches; nor do I think he condemns them particularly in this poem. He accepts that there’s nothing there, and if he steps in, open to experience nevertheless, well, so might I — just as I might absently pick a flower or run my fingers across a shiny leaf as I walk.

    You say he might get more from it if he chose to believe some magnificent story about the meaning of the church. Perhaps he might, but I like his approach better — respecting the human experience which was centred around the building even as he rejects the ideology behind it.

  • Eilidh

    ever since my dad dies i have had a fondness for churches and fell that they have a meaning and a purpose to everyone,

  • http://sites.google.com/site/skepticalpoetry/ Ian Mason

    I like visiting churches and cathedrals because I feel a sense of awe at the skill, craftsmanship, labour and imagination that have often been put into them. Salisbury cathedral in Wiltshire, one described as “the outward expression of inward ecstasy” is well worth a visit.