Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Church Going

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 will 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 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 recognisable 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 which 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 recognized, 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.

(go to the end of this blog for a YouTube link to hear Larkin read the poem)

What I admire most about this poem is the way in which the slow deepening of thought is reflected in the slow deepening of the poetry, the progression from superficial looking to profound observation, from the colloquial to the rhetorical, from a casual, almost indifferent agnosticism to the serious expression of ideas no less religious for lacking god: for Larkin is not seeking God in church, nor lamenting His diseisement, but yearning for a culture that achieves its own apotheosis through the glory of human achievement without requiring the name of the divine.

The "story" of the poem is travelogue: cycling around the countryside, Larkin comes upon another of those small, rural churches which urbanisation has rendered obsolete. An agnostic - not an atheist: the distinction is important, for agnosticism implies uncertainty, ambivalence - Larkin is drawn inside precisely because he has lingering questions to resolve and needs to test them in the laboratory. But it is the edifice, not the rites, that draws him; were a service in progress, as he tells us in the opening line, he would not go in.

Inclined to reject more than to accept, he adopts a tone akin to scoffing: "stuff up at the holy end" suggests a man constructing ironic intellectual barriers to reverence, as does his pretence of ignorance, echoed later in "the crew/That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were" - if he were that ignorant, he wouldn't know to name them rood-lofts. But the tone, the pretence, endorses his sense of non-belonging, and this enables him to remain aloof. Yet simultaneous and nonetheless he feels an "awkward reverence". And if "the place was not worth stopping for", why then did he stop; and why does he often do so; and why go to so much trouble writing a poem about it? True indifference, or true contempt, would cycle by, and write a poem on another subject. Stopping, and writing, becomes the inner struggle. Agnosticism incarnate, tested in the living act. Because he is seeking something intangible, a stillness, an ambience, a mystery which is not God but which may perhaps be contained within the House of God, or even better in the poem about the house of God, "a hunger to be more serious".

Now the tone changes, becomes, indeed, "more serious": the outsider begins to speak with the voice of one who does belong, at least to some aspects of this "barn", whose sense of something being lost, or wasted, whose indignation and intellectual musings, are those of an insider. And speaking thus, though never explicitly, Larkin evokes a millennium of Christian culture which defined the civilisation that it spiritually governed. What now lies in ruins is not merely a building, but men and women whose lives were oriented to the looming spire, the daily liturgy, the rites of passage collocated in this edifice: masons, sculptors, glaziers, priests, musicians, scribes, carpenters, smiths, and those more humdrum souls for whom this was a locus for prayer and a stage for baptisms, marriages, funerals. (Poets too, of course; Larkin is a man of Kingston-upon-Hull, no distance at all from Bede's Whitby and Caedmon's Umbria, and he, the professional librarian as well as poet, fully aware of it). 

So, finally, there is the desire to see this superstitious fallacy of the failed human mind recycled to the landfill site of intellectual culture; but there is also the sense of what that fallacy created, in art and architecture, literature and human life, and the lack of anything in his contemporary world that might effectively replace it, something that is not simply useless merchandise to fill the "barn" once it is sold off to developers. The church pinpointed human society, and imbued it with a moral purpose, however fraudulent. All this it is whose desuetude Larkin is lamenting: a world whose pulse no longer beats: a world in which the manifestations of the human spirit have lost their vitality: a spirituality reduced to snobbery and habit, or converted to the worship of Mammon. Larkin emerges as a most profoundly religious agnostic. 

Click here to listen to Philip Larkin reading the poem, in a voice that could be Eeyore's from Winnie the Pooh, or that of Douglas Adams' Marvin the Paranoid Android: languid, single-toned, lugubrious.

You can find this poem, with all of Larkin's poetry, in his "Collected Poems" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988) - click here.

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