An analysis of “Church Going” by Philip Larkin

May 25, 2019 by Essay Writer

When one reads the title Church Going, one is inclined to think the poem that follows is going to be deeply religious. However, Philip Larkin’s “Church Going” introduces an interesting play of words; when one goes on to read the poem, it becomes clear that it isn’t about going “to” church but the going “of” it. This poem addresses the slow demise of Church as an institution. Throughout, Larkin explores the possibility of what would happen if the Church were diluted in its essence, all while acknowledging the ongoing attraction of the religiosity that the Church embodies.

In the very first line the poet has made it clear that he’s a sceptic and he doesn’t wish to be involved in any ceremonies. He mentions the phrase “Another church”, as in just another church. This phrase is important because this is a part of the idea of religion being diluted, where all he sees is just “another church”. His tone is almost provocative in this context. Even when he says that everything is “brownish now”, he tries to imply that it is slowly eroding and isn’t quite as potent as it used to be. He brings out the idea of decay in this part of the poem. Also, the fact that he calls the alter the “holy end” almost seems to be in a subtle yet distinctly mocking tone. What is interesting, however, is that there is an “unignorable silence”. While this is a way by which he is questioning why he finds no answers, it may also mean that it is in this condition of the church that the speaker finds the peace needed for introspection. However, in the end, there is an “awkward reverence”, exposing a sense of ambiguity in the attitude of the speaker towards God.

The speaker then shows a level of cynicism, moving his “hand around the font”- is he searching for God or checking out the place? (sense of ambivalence). He reads out a few verses, saying “here endeth” much louder than he meant. This phrase could have a deeper layer of meaning and perhaps can be associated with the idea of the demise of church as an institution. “The echoes snigger briefly” is another very significant phrase that might point to the fact that even the echoes of his voice are mocking the whole idea of this demise. He donates an “Irish sixpence”, knowing it has no value. This sixpence may metaphorically symbolize the church and its waning significance.

The first stanza brings out the ambivalence of the speaker, despite the fact that the speaker says that the place is not worth stopping for, he stops there nonetheless. What is he looking for? But he finds himself at a loss again, not having found what he was looking for. He wonders what will happen when “churches fall completely out of use”. He wonders if they will become monuments to be admired or if they will be considered unlucky. He also wonders if this will become a place where only superstition finds a space. The fourth stanza covers the idea of the possibilities of events that could happen if church is gone.

In the fifth stanza, he speaks of the hypocrisy of the way religion is seen and wonders if the church will only be useful for these purposes. He wonders if it will become a place towards which a “Christmas-addict” would be drawn. Perhaps one can conclude that this phrase brings out the idea of the importance of church as a purely ceremonial landmark. People only go to church during Christmas. He goes on contemplating whether the Christmas-addict will be as ambivalent as him, bored and uninformed. In this stanza, he delineates the church as potentially a place that just holds important ceremonies. He also brings out a very important fact that the most important times of our life are tied to religion- birth, death and love.

Despite all his cynicism, the narrator ultimately talks about being drawn towards the church, not knowing what he has come for. He says that someone will be always looking for a greater calling, and so the church can’t ever fall completely out of use. Despite the fact that the speaker believes that the place wasn’t worth stopping for, he does in fact stop. This brings out a sense of ambivalence in the poem and shows that the poet isn’t entirely cynical of church as an institution. He speaks of church being a shelter where the compulsions of the visitors converge. These elements in the poem render it less certain and bring out a sense of ambiguity due to the conflicted stance of the poet. He says that “It pleases me to stand in silence here”, implying that despite the fact that he doesn’t completely understand the theological purpose of the church, there is a part of him that is drawn back to the church time and again.

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