Ambiguities of Religion: A Comparison of Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ and George Herbert’s ‘Prayer.’
Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ and George Herbert’s ‘Prayer’ present similarities in that they both explore the ambiguities of religion. The difference lies in their approach: Herbert contemplates the significance of religion, whereas Larkin, almost three centuries later, contemplates its very existence. The content and thematic elements of these poems perhaps differ so greatly due to the period they were written and published. Larkin first published ‘Church Going’ in the 1950’s, a relatively modern era where religion and the concept of a ‘God’ was beginning to be widely questioned. In comparison, Herbert composed his poem in the late 1600’s, shortly after the Tudor reign. At this point in history, religion was a much more commonplace part of people’s everyday lives, meaning that his poem assumes that religion will always be an established institution. It is interesting to consider that this may be why the two poems differ so much in content. However, this essay will also discuss how the two poets differ in their narration and choice of language to create these two opposing views.
Both these poems are based on the views of a narrator regarding religion. Therefore, to alter these views, the poets present two very different narrative perspectives. Throughout ‘Church Going’, the speaker appears awkward and one who is unsure how religion fits in to his current situation; Larkin names him ‘an interloper’: Hatless, I take off My cycle-clips in awkward reverence Larkin purposefully takes this traditional image and replaces it with an almost comical object; without a hat, the narrator takes off his cycle-clips as the only way he can think of to show respect. This reminds the reader of his modernity, both through his attire and how seemingly inappropriate it is for a church setting. Yet Larkin also perhaps suggests the opposite also: that religion and it’s home in the church is also now inappropriate for the modern life. This contrasts against the attitude in ‘Prayer’, where religion is valued as an undeniable aspect of society. Additionally, the phrase ‘awkward reverence’ suggests an attempt to show respect. A later line in the poem sees the narrator trying to ‘[reintroduce] religion on his own terms, speaking as someone without faith who is trying to recover the comfort that it used to give’. This completely changes the narrator’s perspective; the ‘awkward reverence’ is not through an unfamiliarity with religion, but a previous neglect that he is now only just returning to, seemingly years later. Therefore, Larkin’s poem presents a very personal narrative, where religion has moved transitioned from this worldwide movement to an individual battle for one person.
This questioning of religion simply doesn’t occur in Herbert’s ‘Prayer’. The narrator is in utmost praise of religion and is utterly convinced of its fulfilling power, shown through the consistent use of religious language: ‘Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age/ God’s breath in man, returning to his birth.’ The metaphor ‘Churches banquet’ alludes to this idea of the Eucharist; prayer is seen as akin to physical nourishment. Additionally, the connection between the physical and spiritual –‘heav’n and earth’ – suggests a complete reverence for the Bible’s teaching, rejecting this ambiguity of belief that Larkin imposes. It also alludes to the idea that man was made in God’s image, once again connecting humanity to a deity-like image. Herbert also refers to the crucifixion where ‘God [is] returning to his birth’. Through presenting the very origins of religion, it suggests that religion is still as relevant to Herbert’s narrator, and will continue to be as relevant in the future. Once religion has been cemented as a concept, Herbert also reflects on how a person can be respectful to God, specifying that the spirits will bear witness to our own spirit. This suggests that religious worship must be an action – as prayer is – to show reverence. Therefore, these overtly religious metaphors provide a comparison to ‘Church Going’; its vague imagery of ‘the holy end’ reflects how Larkin’s narrator is so unfamiliar with religion that he cannot use the correct terminology to describe his surroundings or lost faith.
As it has been previously discussed, both poems discuss the relevance that religion has in society. The contrasting element is in how secure this institution is, and for what period of time religion will continue to be important to society and its members. This can be seen through the endings to each poem and the consequent last impressions the narrators impose on the reader. In ‘Prayer’, the metaphors have been resolved. Helen Vendler comments, the ‘final definition of prayer as “something understood” abolishes or expunges the need for explanatory metaphors.’ Herbert seems to allude to this almost directly in his poem, suggesting the ‘land of spice’ as ‘something understood’. This suggests that the metaphor has been universally understood and can be comprehended by all those within the religion who will automatically understand. This perhaps presents an exclusivity of community; only those who understand the Biblical reference can understand the poem. Therefore Herbert’s poem asserts that as long as this understanding remains, the power of the Church and religion will also be relevant. However, the use of this ambiguous pronoun is interesting to consider as a contrast to the previously used, extremely specific religious metaphors. Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ would consider this ‘something’ as an indefinable, ambiguous aspect. However, in the context of ‘Prayer’, ‘something’ instead seems to mean faith, and it’s ambiguity only means that it is not a tangible object. Thus the ending of Herbert’s poem is both ambiguous to the non-religious yet evident to the religious, suggesting the possible potential relevance that religion could have in society.
In ‘Church Going’, the poem’s conclusion almost actively rejects religion, confirming that ‘the place was not worth stopping for.’ The ending suggests a modern way of thinking that assumes this belief will ‘be an inevitable evolution in people’s thinking’:
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
This suggests that Larkin’s narrator is representative of an entire generation, which automatically makes this negative ending increasingly more poignant. This is reflected in Larkin’s reference to the graveyard, mirroring the Church’s future status and what it will come to represent: a past, and metaphorically dead, entity. He also comments on the appropriate role for the Church in modern life; it is seen as a peaceful place that was ‘proper to grow wise in’, but not to live a life through. This lack of regimented belief is reflected in the poem’s structure, as well as the ending. ‘Church Going’ has neither a rhyme scheme nor structured stanzas. If we consider that Herbert believed ‘[the] ultimate method of reflecting God’s glory was the creation of a work of decency and order, […] an ordered poem….’, then Larkin’s poem displays the exact opposite. Whereas Herbert’s poet exudes this idea of order with neat stanzas, regular rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter, Larkin presents a less traditional structure. His third, fourth, and fifth stanza are almost prophetic in questioning the purpose of this ‘special shell.’ Larkin also employs a stream of consciousness as a structure, mirroring this unstructured contemplation of religion. This presents an image as if the narrator is writing the poem as he stands outside the Church, bringing a sense of immediacy to his words. This stream of consciousness also presents an uncertainty of what could be said next, reflecting the precarious position the Church holds in a society that will ultimately let it crumble. In the final stanza, the speaker is back to the reality of ‘[standing] in silence’. This leaves not only the speaker but the reader also in ambiguity; even after intense contemplation, a concrete conclusion has not been reached.
The symbolic meanings of ‘Church Going’ and ‘Prayer’ have been examined, and both display extremely different attitudes as to the meaning of religion. Despite all their differences, there is a similarity in the realization that life is precious. In ‘Church Going’, it is important to the narrator that he seeks meanings somehow in his life, whether this is through religion or not. Similarly, ‘Prayer’ comments on how religion can give purpose and meaning to a person’s life in order to preserve their sanctity of life. Both poems present this view that how a person spends their life is important, and perhaps religion goes beyond physical acts such as prayers and buildings; it is the faith that you live your life by.
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