An Analysis Of Philip Larkin’s “Church Going”

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Philip Larkin Church GoingAlthough Philip Larkin is one of those writers best read in abridgment, one can’t deny that he has written some excellent poems at his best. More, Larkin is a great poet to read when young: that is, when poetry still feels like a second language, as he is not only easy to ‘get’ line by line, but is still technically competent even in his worst material. This means that Larkin can always be probed a bit more deeply…even if, coming out on the other end, one realizes it was all surface.

Although Larkin’s “Church Going” is one of my favorite poems, I can’t really argue that it’s a great one, or even Larkin’s best. That it fails in some spots, however, makes it especially ripe for analysis, and becomes – paradoxically – easier to argue for its immanent qualities given how quickly they bubble to the surface. By contrast, a poem like “High Windows” is cordoned off unless you know what to look for, and even then it is a bit harder to explain its successes. Not here, however, as “Church Going” maps its own trajectory in a way that’s less demanding of the reader:

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,

A good introductory stanza, and one that gets better as the poem goes on. It sets the scene, rhythmically, with solemn pauses (the first sentence; the use of lists and colons which nicely lend themselves to rest-stops) and does not hammer you with its deeper purpose outright. So far, it could be a theological poem or something else altogether, thus giving an opportunity for both poet and reader to meander a bit before settling into its actual narrative. No, there are no great lines here, but there are little details that do worm into one’s memory: casually baptizing the iconic portion of a church as “the holy end”, for one, or the neglect of church flowers as a small metaphor for what comes. More, the language creates – especially by the end of stanza 2 – a definite impression to play off of, which not only paces Larkin’s argument but also makes it easier to swallow when it does finally show itself.

One website incorrectly writes in a period after the stanza’s last word. Yet notice the negative effect this would have:

…Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

There is a finality here which locks the poem into a trajectory it does not have. Further, one expects more scene-setting – perhaps an addition to the first stanza’s lists – before the task of commenting on the scene itself. This is an issue of … Continue reading →