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Analysis of Poem 'Church Going' by Philip Larkin

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin and a Summary of 'Church Going'

'Church Going' is a medium-length lyrical poem that explores the issue of the church as a spiritual base. It begins ordinarily enough, as do many of Larkin's poems, then progresses deeper into the subject matter as the narrator questions why people still need to go to church.

  • Although set in England at a time when traditional religion was beginning to decline, the poet skillfully teases out more universal issues, using metaphor and pun and other devices to produce a memorable, technically efficient poem.

Larkin's narrator is initially just curious, stepping into a quiet church, but then becomes more perceptive, knowledgeable and dry. Each stanza furthers the inquiry until the conclusion comes at the end, radical yet tempered.

Is it a religious poem? Let Larkin answer that for himself:

‘I was a bit irritated by an American who insisted to me that it was a religious poem. It isn’t religious at all. Religion surely means that the affairs of this world are under divine surveillance, and so on, and I go to some pains to point out that I don’t bother about that sort of thing, that I’m deliberately ignorant of it: ‘ “Up at the holy end”, for instance.’

Influences for Larkin's 'Church Going centre' around T.S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral and his Four Quartets.

'Church Going' by Philip Larkin

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 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 or other 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 recognizable 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 whom 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 recognised, 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.

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The Speaker in 'Church Going'

Although it starts out ordinarily enough, this is a poem of unusual reflection.

The speaker appears to be a person who frequents churches with the attitude of a museum-goer—he's only there for the history and the architecture, and to have a laugh with a biblical text—yet he is humble in one respect: he rides a bicycle and wears old-fashioned clips to stop chain oil from getting onto his clothes.

He feels he has to do this, perhaps because he's been brought up in a god-fearing environment, where it is proper to be clean; after all, cleanliness is next to godliness, as the saying goes.

After mounting the lectern—an act which suggests he fancies himself a minister, vicar or priest—the speaker confesses ignorance, something we know to be a pretext since he knows a lot about church interiors, and knows the names of things.

This humble cyclist is more than he makes out to be, for he starts to ask himself serious questions about churches in general; what sort of future have they in a world that seems to be ignoring religious tradition? A world that's becoming more secular, more materialistic?

Has it been mere superstition holding the fabric of the church together for so long? Power of some sort has to continue—but how?

Just imagine a time when the last ever person leaves a place of worship such as this. It could a carpenter, a pious tourist, an aged worshiper—or someone else with a religious impulse who wants to rebuild and start over.

Analysis of 'Church Going': Metre, Rhyme and Tone

'Church Going' has seven stanzas, each with a mix of slant and full end-rhymes and often made up of nine iambic pentameter lines. This reflects tradition, the common metre (meter in American English) of the land, setting a steady five beats per line on average:

Of gown- / and-band / and org / an-pipes / and myrrh?

Or will / he be / my rep / resen / tative,

And note the astute use of enjambment—when one line flows into another, without punctuation, to keep the sense flowing—particularly strong in stanzas five and six, but present in each one.

Larkin uses ababcaece, an interesting rhyme scheme which is sometimes full and often slant: on/stone/organ from the first stanza, come/some/random from the fourth, and is/destinies/serious from the last.

Full rhyme confirms sense; slant rhyme questions it. The fact that Larkin uses a lot of slant rhyme in this poem must be significant. Is he suggesting that, while he acknowledges the history and importance of a building like a church, he questions the notion of worshiping a god?


The title of Lark's piece is particularly interesting because it implies that the poem is about regular worshipers, churchgoers who turn up every Sunday; yet the opening line seems to suggest that this is not the case at all.

This churchgoer is someone a little different, probably the poet himself, timidly soft-footing it in to the church only because it is empty. The speaker is drawn to the tense, musty, unignorable silence of yet another church, curious to find out more about why he's there, wondering what to look for.

It's quite clear that the speaker has an initial tongue-in-cheek approach to the interior. There is a hint that he thinks of it like a brewery (Brewed God knows how long); he has an awkward reverence and in fact doesn't stay that long. And although the donation of an Irish sixpence is worthless, he does sign the book, a gesture of respect.

This churchgoer is ambivalent, unsure of his own religious feelings. Is he in the church to find solace, or is he only there to have a go at those who have faith?

Larkin teases the reader, presenting a rational argument laced with doubt and agnostic cynicism. Acerbic in tone, the speaker is just human enough to acknowledge that A serious house on serious earth it is, suggesting that people will always need a holy space to worship in.

Diction and Language

This poem is packed with a rich mixture of common and rare vocabulary. It can be read out loud, whispered quietly, or even read in silence; it seems to satisfy all criteria for poetry performance.

Stanza by stanza, there are notable combinations:

  • door thud shut/some brass and stuff . . . assonance and vowel variety.
  • Hectoring/Here endeth . . . hectoring means bullying in an intimidating way . . . Here endeth is the classic King James bible wrap-up phrase for the end of a sermon.
  • parchment,plate and pyx . . . church artifacts (old paper/text, silver or metal trays and plates, a round container containing the consecrated host).
  • pick simples for a cancer . . . to use medicinal herbs to cure a cancer.
  • rood-lofts/ruin-bibber . . . a display gallery above the rood screen/someone addicted to ruins (rood- crucifix) (bibber-person who imbibes specified drink).
  • accoutred frowsty barn . . . impressive stuffy barn (a disparaging phrase).
  • blent air all our compulsions meet . . . a poetic use of blended, so a mix of air, where people are urged or forced to do certain things (note the change from the singular I to our).

Readers will note the almost sneaky way the speaker enters the church—only when there's nothing going on—and moves forward through the tense, musty silence, Brewed God knows how long, before mockingly announcing Here endeth and listening to the response: The echoes snigger briefly.

The language is that of a non-believer certainly, an atheist perhaps but not such a devout one giving the reader the impression that here is someone out to poke fun at the established church. He's in and out in double-quick time.

  • What follows is reflection, sparked by the simple observation that this is something he does on a regular basis. How curious to visit a place that makes him feel at a loss.
  • Then comes inquirywondering, What we shall, if we shall, Shall we before finally there appears a rough philosophical outcome, to be more serious, gravitating, was proper to grow wise in.


© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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