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.
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: