‘Faith Healing’ by Philip Larkin is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of ten lines. Larkin has chosen to conform the poem to a consistent rhyme scheme. It follows the pattern of ABCABDABCABD, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit within stanzas two and three. Additionally, the poem is standard in its meter. It is written in iambic pentameter meaning that each line contains five sets of ten beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed creating a regular pattern reminiscent of the repetition of prayer.
Summary of Faith Healing
The poem begins with the speaker describing the women making their way to the priest. Each is only allowed twenty seconds of contact before they are moved out of line. This does not seem to matter to the women who are emotionally overturned by the experience. Some wander off, others standstill, unable to comprehend what happened. They contemplate God, love, and the life they have lived up until this point.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Faith Healing
Slowly the women file to where he standsUpright in rimless glasses, silver hair,Dark suit, white collar. Stewards tirelessly(…)And, scarcely pausing, goes into a prayerDirecting God about this eye, that knee.Their heads are clasped abruptly; then, exiled
The poem begins with the speaker describing how a group of “women” is “fil[ing]” up to one particular person, a man. The use of the word “file” in this first line is important to understand the setting and the general mood amongst those participating in and observing the actions. The women are organized, likely in a single file line. They approach in a regulated manner. One can imagine that their clothes and hair have been strictly arranged.
The man to whom they are walking is described as being “Upright.” He is wearing “rimless glasses” and has “silver hair.” From the next line one receives confirmation that he is a priest. The line says that he has on a “Dark suit [and a] white collar.” In addition to the women and the priest, there are stewards. These people are in charge of moving the line along and making sure that everyone gets where they need to be as quickly as possible. This adds another dimension to the scene and might make a reader wonder why, in a religious context, does this line need to move fast? Once can refer up to the title of the poem for the answer.
The women are attending a “faith healing.” It is at this particular event that a priest, purporting to be in direct communication with God, heals those afflicted with every kind of ailment. These helpers are beloved by some but derided by many who see them as being showmen profiting off the backs of the desperate. As the poem progresses one will come to understand the latter as the opinion of the speaker and of Larkin himself.
When one woman makes it to the front of the line she moves within the “warm spring rain of loving care.” It showers down on her from the priest who blesses her. The experience is an emotional one, but does not last more than twenty seconds. This addition to the description quickly brings the narrative back to reality. There is a time limit here, and many more women in line.
The American priest speaks to the woman during these few seconds. He asks her what is wrong and then immediately prays to God about it. It could be her “eye” or “knee.” The two are drawn close, their “heads…clasped” and then they are separated.
Like losing thoughts, they go in silence; someSheepishly stray, not back into their livesJust yet; but some stay stiff, twitching and loud(…)To lift and lighten; and such joy arrivesTheir thick tongues blort, their eyes squeeze grief, a crowdOf huge unheard answers jam and rejoice—
In the second stanza, the speaker follows the women out of the line. They have been blessed, and showered in happiness and God’s love for a brief moment. Now, they are silent. They drift away from the front. Some, the speaker states, “stray” from this place. They are not ready to go back to their own lives and wander off outside of the vicinity of the church. There are others though who are overcome by the experience. They “stay stiff” from their moment with the priest and “twitch.” The women cry “deep hoarse tears.” This contingent of the congregation is unable to deal with what they’ve just experienced. Something that seems simple to an outsider is deeply moving to the one participating.
The speaker compares the crying of the women to the reawakening of an interior child. It has been a long time since the women experience someone who exhibited true kindness. This novelty brings out the “idiot child” within them. Here, the speaker’s opinion of the practice of faith healing is made clear. He sees these people as being ignorant and too ready to believe they are called “alone” to God. The women see themselves as having been singled out and saved by their creator.
The “hands” of the priest become the hands of god and they are “lift[ed]” from their dreary and painful lives. From the twenty seconds of contact, they have with the faith healer, they are filled with “joy.” It “arrives” and makes their tongues “thick.” Around the women, there is an equally striking outpouring of emotion. Everyone else in the church, who is not at this moment being “healed” cheers uproariously as each woman is saved.
What’s wrong! Moustached in flowered frocks they shake:By now, all’s wrong. In everyone there sleepsA sense of life lived according to love.(…)As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps,Spreads slowly through them—that, and the voice aboveSaying Dear child, and all time has disproved.
In the final ten-line stanza the speaker goes deeper into the minds of those who have been healed. The first lines of this section contain an exclamation. This is perhaps a reference to the reaction of the crowd upon seeing the women shake and wander off from the church. On the other hand, it could be a thought within their own heads as they try to come to terms with how they feel. Additionally, the speaker might be using this line to draw further attention to the changes one can through, even fictitiously, at the hand of one who demands their faith.
The women are still “shak[ing]” as they were directly after their twenty seconds was over. Now, everything has changed. The closeness they felt to God has progressed through their bodies, freeing that “idiot child” and reminding them of love. The speaker uses the next lines to describe how love functions within the bodies of these women. They are standing in for the world at large. It is nothing about this particular group he looks down on.
The speaker describes how love is integral to how one sees the world. To some, it refers to the “difference” that might’ve been made through the “loving [of] others.” Then, there are those (most of the population) who fall into depression thinking of all they could’ve done had they been loved. This is the more selfish way to consider life and is followed up with the line, “That nothing cures.” The sky cracks open, rain pours and everything that was once held together comes apart.
Within the final lines, the speaker takes the narrative back to the faith healer who is at the center of this outpouring of emotion. He is “above” the women, looking down and calling each “child.” It is this subjugation and moment of vulnerability that is now going to define them.