‘Church Going’ by Philip Larkin is a seven stanza poem that is is made up of sets of nine lines. Each of these strophes is constructed with a specific, but somewhat halting rhyme scheme in mind. Larkin has chosen to make use of both full and half end rhymes. These varying endings give the poem a feeling of unpredictability. One is never quite sure when the words are going to fall into line, or step out, breaking the pattern.
One such instance of these varied types of rhymes is in the first stanza in lines one and three as well as two and four. The poet lines up the words “On” and “stone” to rhyme, as well as “shut” and “cut.” The former are connected through a half-rhyme and “shut” and “cut” through a full rhyme.
The poem begins with the speaker entering into a building the reader later discovers is a church. He is not sure why exactly he wants to be there, and is even more confused by what he sees inside. He has seen many altars, pews, and bibles before and does not feel any type of reverence towards them. The speaker reads briefly from the Bible and exits.
Upon leaving the church he contemplates what the building represents and what it will mean when all the believers are long dead. He pictures the very last explorer of the building and wonders whether he or she will be like him, curious but emotionless.
‘Church Going’ concludes with the speaker deciding that no matter what the building might mean, it is important for humanity that churches be maintained. He sees them as being places of coming together and acceptance of one’s common humanity with the rest of the world.
Analysis of Church Going
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
‘Church Going’ begins with the speaker describing, through initial action phrases, his entering into a place. In the first two lines it is unclear to the reader where exactly this speaker is and what is so important about making sure, “there’s nothing going on.” The reader might ask, what is this place that it needs to be empty for one to enter? What could have been “going on?”
The speaker checks to make sure the structure is clear and steps inside. He mentions the fact that the door closes with a “thud” behind him. It is both sealing him into the space, and keeping the exterior world out.
If one had not assumed the identity of the structure from the title, the next line makes known to the reader that the speaker is exploring a church. Immediately it becomes clear why the space needed to be empty so that he could explore inside it. There is an important word mentioned in this section that changes the feeling of the poem, “Another.” This is not the first time that he has entered into an abandoned, or simply empty, church.
The speaker glances around and notices all the items that are consistent throughout all the churches that he has visited. There are books, and sets, and “stone.” He is unsurprised by these sights. He also takes in the fact that there is some “brass and stuff / Up at the holy end.” This mundane way of referring to the altar at the front of the church says a lot about the speaker. He does not hold any reverence or respect for the space he is in.
Amongst all the physical things he notices, he also feels an “unignorable silence” that is overwhelming in the space. It seems to the speaker that the church has been absent of people for quite a long time.
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
The speaker moves “forward” to the front of the church and “run[s]” his hand over the pews. Once he has made it to the front he looks around and notices what seem to be complete repairs and restorations done to the roof. This is a curious fact about the space as it is so devoid of people. There is no one there to ask why this is the case.
The speaker continues his journey through this religious space and takes to reading from the Bible. He speaks a few “large-scale verses” in an increased volume, spreading the words around the space. His projected voice comes back to him in an echo.
This ends his tour of the church and he departs after leaving an “Irish sixpence,” an incredibly small amount of money, in the donation box. He comes to the conclusion that this place was not worth visiting.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
The speaker seems to have some kind of inner conflict about his attraction to churches. He knows, and knew, that there would not be anything new inside, but he stopped anyway. This is not unusual for him. He “often” does it and winds up in this same mental space. The man is frequently entering into the churches, searching through their religious objects, and then leaving unsatisfied. He does not yet know what he is looking for but is always left with one specific question.
He is curious about what the church will be like, or what the human race will utilize all the churches for when the very last believer is gone. When they have fallen “completely out of use” will they be avoided “as unlucky places?” Or will the “sheep” have full rein over their interiors?
Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
In the fourth stanza of ‘Church Going’, the speaker continues his contemplation of what the churches will become when all the religiously devoted have passed on. One idea the speaker has about the fate of these places is the continued existence of their power. He considers the possibility that in the future people will still come to them for a variety of spiritual reasons. Mothers might bring their children to “touch a particular stone” for luck, or perhaps people will come to see the dead “walking.”
He knows that “Power of some sort will go on” even if the traditional religious context is lost. The “superstition” he knows will surround the place “must die” as well. One day, even the “disbelief” of the superstitions will be lost. All that the building will be is “Grass…brambles, buttress, sky.” It will be no more than its walls.
A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,
As time passes this conglomeration of architectural elements will fall further into disrepair. It will become “less recognizable” as the days move forward until its original purpose is completely unknown.
The speaker embraces a new question in this stanza. He is considering who the very last believer or pilgrim, or seeker of truth will be who enters the building. Will this person even comprehend where he or she is? What, he wonders, will this man or woman think as the final remnants of a dead religion?
The last person, he assumes, will be “one of the crew” who knows what a “rood-loft” is. This is a reference to what is more commonly known as a rood screen. It is a feature of late medieval church architecture that was situated between the chancel and nave at the front of the church.
In the final lines of this stanza, the speaker contemplates who this person is. Will they be a “Christmas-addict” or someone who is there solely to seek out “organ-pipes and myrrh,” and all the religious ephemera of the church? Lastly, he considers the option that the seeker will be as is he, someone who is “uninformed” and unclear on the purpose of religion.
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
As ‘Church Going’ begins to conclude the speaker continues his prospective description of who the last visitor of the church will be. This person might be as he is, curious about the place because of its long-lasting nature. It has “held unsplit” for so long, one might wonder what has allowed it to survive. The onlooker might think on further in the same vein as he, wondering what the “frosty barn is worth” and how, without knowing its worth, it can please one to “stand in silence here.”
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
The final stanza of ‘Church Going’ returns to the speaker’s own thoughts, he has finished contemplating what could be and resumes his own present musings. Up until this point, the reader might be under the impression that the speaker holds no real regard for religion or the true structure of the church. This is quickly dismissed with the first line of this stanza. He states that the church is, “A serious house on serious earth.” It has a true and worthy purpose and should not be made fun of. It is a place where all the “compulsions” or impulses of human beings meet.
Here, the truth of human existence is “recognized” and celebrated. The fact of this, he thinks, should not ever become “obsolete.” It is important enough to be remembered forever. The church will “forever” bring out a “hunger” is one that cannot be discovered through any other means. The discovery of “serious[ness]” will remain with one until the end. A man or woman who has rediscovered something in themselves will take it with them to “this ground.” They will return to the churchyard and the place where “so many dead lie round.”