Critical Analysis of “Church Going” by Philip Larkin
Religion brings to man an inner strength, spiritual light and ineffable peace only when it is strongly believed. “Church Going” was written at that time when people’s belief on religion was declining. Less attendance in churches could be witnessed. Purpose of the poem is not to target any specific religion nor does it satirize the society. It reveals the innersole of people. It is about the condition of people after world war. The poet prophesies the future of churches. He is of the view that in futures churches would no more be used for the religious purposes. He predicts the decline of churches in upcoming years. Though the poem is about churches yet it is not a religious poem, says Philip Larkin. Many readers and critics have misinterpreted it as a religious poem but Philip Larkin has denied this interpretation. According to him, it is a pure secular poem, in which no specific sect or religion has been criticized; instead, he just talks about the future of churches. He just expresses his view on churches. He also depicts the future of people with respect to religion and superstition beliefs. World war left impact on many prudent minds. Religion was fading because their prayers were not being answered. Philip Larkin about “Church Going” said:-
“It is of course an entirely secular poem. I was a bit irritated by an American who insisted to me it was a religious poem. It isn’t religious at all. Religion surely means that the affairs of this world are under divine supervenience, and so on, and I go to some pains to point out that I don’t bother about that kind of thing, that I am deliberately ignorant of it.”
Thus, while reading poem, it should be kept in mind that the poem is not religious. Many critics do not agree with the remarks of the poet. Somehow, religion is involved in this poem. Church is directly proportional to religion, therefore, either intentionally or unintentionally religion has been touched by the poet.
Speaker is the poet himself, who tells his incident. He said that he, after ensuring that not ritual ceremony was going on in the church, visited it. He entered and “thud shut” the door. He describes the scenery of church while illustrating that there were some books, flowers, which were kept on last Sunday (now faded), matting floor and also an organ to produce music; it was played during worship. The poet had no hat, therefore, he took off his bicycles clip in order to show some respect. The poet moved further and gives description about the church building. He saw the church had been renovated and cleaned. He read some verses from Bilble; when he finished, he shouted “Here endeth”. In reply of his action, he heard some mocking sounds. Then he put his signatures on the book, drop sixpences into the charity box and exited. He did not find his visit worth instead he called it wastage of precious time.
Attitude of the poet towards religion and church, in first two stanzas of the poem, is worst. He had not mocked anyone but himself. Perhaps, it was the first time, when he visited the church or he was confused. It seemed that he had no etiquettes. He thud shut the door. He did not pray from his heart but like a tourist examined the church. At the end, he realized that it was not worthwhile to spend time in the church. Philip Larkin actually is the representative of his era. People in those days were fed up from religion. Due to chaos, people could not find peace in it. In fact, their beliefs on religion were fading day by day. The poet is not only telling his own story but the story of every person, belonging to his age. He had no faith on religion. He did not consider church as a useful place; it is just a building for him like other building of his city. There is no peace for him. Larkin said that the poem was not a religious poem but secular. Be that as it may, it reveals the downfall of religion.
Every time the poet visited the church, he felt that his time was wasted. He went in the church with enthusiasm but returned empty handed. He found every visit useless. The poet also depicts the future of churches, which is gloomy. He is of the considered view that one day people will stop visiting the churches; buildings of the churches will be converted to museums and its things will be kept in locked boxes so that people can see them. He further suggests that remaining portion of the church will be left as it is. People will consider churches as unlucky places. With the downfall of religion, superstition beliefs will be strengthened. There is another possibility that women would come to churches in order to cure their children. They will get amulets or touch objects for the treatment of their children. It is also possible, says poet, that people will find souls of deads in the churches. But eventually superstition beliefs will also come to an end. What will happen next?
In these stanzas, downfall of religion has been shown. A very sad future has been prophesied by the poet. He does not consider religion everlasting. It is temporary for him. The poet has not criticized God nor the people but the purpose of going to churches. If religion fades, superstition beliefs will become stronger. Church buildings will become relics or museums. People will come and see holy objects. Religion and superstition beliefs are interlinked with each other. Where there is religion there must be superstition beliefs. From secular point of view, this poem is not an attack on religion; rather it satirizes the superstition beliefs. It indicates the weaknesses of people. They become bored too soon. After religion there come the superstition beliefs but what after it? The poem is also about the change. Rarely, any person shows consistency to religion or superstition beliefs. Both these things are switched by people according to their needs. If there is no peace in hearts of the people then how can religion give them peace? Secularly, the poem is not about religion but about people. Alfred Alvarez argues on the poem and says:-
“Church Going presents in concentrated form an image of the post-war Welfare State Englishman….. It is the image of a shabby Englishman who is not concerned with his appearance but who is poor, having a bike not a car, who is gauche (or clumsy) but full of agnostic piety; who is under-fed, under-paid, over-taxed, hopeless, bored and wry. ”
It is right that from secular point of view, chaos is reflected in the hearts of people, therefore, they are hopeless. Hope is necessary to find peace in religion which lacks in this case.
Last three stanzas of the poem depict the horrible condition of churches; with the passage of time churches will no longer be recognized due to growth of grass and plants. People will never know about these building. They, like poet, will wonder about them. The will never know what purpose they serve. The poet also wonders who will be the last visitor, whether he will be an antiquarian or a worshiper. There is possibility that churches would be used for the purpose of ritual ceremonies such as marriage and death; buildings will remain intact but they will not serve any serious purpose. In last stanza of the poem, Larkin gives hope to the readers. He says that whenever people will come in these barren buildings they will wonder about their purposes but soon will realize that they are religious places, therefore, spiritual essence of churches would never be ignored nor forgotten. People would think that a visit to church would make them wise as dead bodies are buried there.
The poet is purely secular. In these lines, definitely he has exaggerated the future of churches. He has shown nature as the supreme commander of everything. Plants, trees and grass will hide the churches; people will come only for ritual ceremonies viz. marriage and death. The poet still has hope; he ends the poem while saying that spiritual importance of churches can never be forgotten nor can it be underestimated. The poet has not shown any disrespect to religion. He has revealed his innersole. He writes what he feels.
There may be many meanings of the poem. It is also possible that the poet is criticizing people; they go to churches so that their destinies could be changed. They should struggle instead of just praying. Visiting church twice a day does not give anyone success but hard work gives them the same. When people go to church time and again and they do not find anything they give up on their prayers. They should know that God help those who help themselves. Only prayer is not enough, struggle and hard work is also necessary.
It is also possible that after world war people became hopeless; there was neither charm nor peace in their lives, therefore, they did not find churches helpful; therefore, the poet may be a frustrated hopeless person who is not expecting any goodness from his future.
So far as artistic qualities of the poet are concerned, this poem is a mystery. Like some other poems of Philip Larkin, this poem is also a dramatic monologue. It is full of symbols. A lot of symbols can be found in it. Meanings of the poem depend on the minds of readers. In short, the poem is finest piece of literature.