03 December 2016

Visiting a church with
Philip Larkin in Advent

‘A serious house on serious earth it is’ … Saint Michael’s Church, Greenhill, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

The English poet Philip Larkin was honoured in Westminster Abbey yesterday [2 December 2016] when his name was added to Poets’ Corner.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) resisted any identification with the Church, and before yesterday’s ceremony, the Dean of Westminster Abbey, the Very Revd Dr John Hall said: ‘Larkin himself had no strong faith, if any at all, but in Church Going and also in An Arundel Tomb, he’s thinking about the significance of the Church. There’s a sort of nostalgia there for faith and a sense that if the church disappears we will have lost something very important. Larkin’s engagement with this question is very important and it’s fitting that he’ll take his place at the heart of our church.’

Despite his latest honour in Westminster Abbey today, and despite the fact that many generations of the Larkin family are buried in the churchyard at Saint Michael’s Church in Lichfield, the poet kept himself at arm’s length from the Church. In a number of poems, such as Church Going, he questions the relevance of the Church and asks whether it has a future in modern Britain.

Yesterday, I read Larkin’s Church Going as a morning reflection during the Litany in the Chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. Later in the day, I looked at two of Larkin’s poems that point to the watching and waiting theme of Advent: The Dedicated was written on 18 September 1946 and was published in 1951. Arrivals, departures is set in Belfast and was written there in January 1953.

But Church Going is probably one of Larkin’s best-known poems. He described this poem as his ‘Betjeman poem,’ but it also has echoes of TS Eliot’s Little Gidding in the Four Quartets:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

There are hints too in the poem of TS Eliot’s Journey Of The Magi
The poem Church Going was written by Larkin over 60 years ago in 1954, and it took him about three months to finish it. After a delay of about a year, during which the poem was lost, it was first published eventually in the Spectator on 18 November 1955. That version included some misprints that were not corrected until an edition of his poems was published in January 1962.

While he was writing it, he asked his mother to send him her copies of the Church Times so ‘he could brush up on pyxes and stuff.’

Among the cuttings from the Church Times he kept, one from 7 May 1954 was headed ‘Save Our Churches week.’ The Archbishop of Canterbury had issued an appeal on behalf of the Historic Churches’ Preservation Trust, saying that over 2,000 churches must be helped at once, and that without immediate support about 200 churches in England were in imminent danger of ruin.

Ten years later, Larkin also said he was inspired by a visit one Sunday afternoon, while he was working in Belfast, to a ruined country church in a town south-east of Belfast. Although he had previously seen bombed churches, this was the first church he had visited that ‘had simply fallen into disuse, and for a few moments I felt the decline of Christianity in our century as tangible as gooseflesh.’ In a later interview he recalled: ‘I’d never seen a ruined church before – discarded. It shocked me.’

But those descriptions do not accord with the church he describes in this poem, with its lectern, Bible, font, ‘small neat organ,’ prayer books, flowers, rood-loft and recently cleaned and restored roof. Could this poem have also been inspired by an English church, perhaps by an earlier visit to Saint Michael’s Church in Lichfield when he lived there after the Coventry Blitz and where many members of the Larkin family are buried?

Larkin also related this poem to another Sunday afternoon when he was cycling and visited the church in Ashby-de-la-Zouch (about 15 miles north-east of Lichfield) in Leicestershire, where he admired the rood loft.

Larkin was clear that this poem is not religious. In an interview with Ian Hamilton in 1964, he said, ‘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.’

However, Larkin admitted that the poem has always been well-liked and believed ‘this is because it is about religion, and has a serious air that conceals the fact that its tone and argument are entirely secular.’

The poem talks about the union of the important stages of life – birth, marriage and death – and Larkin would admit he was worried what would happen when these are dispersed into the registry office and the crematorium chapel.

I ‘run my hand around the font’ … the font in Saint Michael's Church, Greenhill, Lichfield, where generations of the Larkin family were baptised (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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 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.

‘If only that so many dead lie round’ … members of the Larkin family are buried at Saint Michael’s Churchyard, Lichfield, and Philip Larkin’s parents are named on tablets (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In this poem, the poet sneaks into a church after making sure the Sunday service is over and the church is empty. He lets himself in, as ‘I often do,’ lets the door ‘thud shut’ behind him, and glances around at the furnishings and decorations.

Last Sunday’s flowers are turning brown, the organ is small and neat, and even he cannot ignore the silence. Despite his protests, Larkin begins to be affected by the atmosphere and a silence ‘Brewed God knows how long.’ He now feels that as a sign of reverence he has to take something off. As he has no hat on his head, and so reverentially he takes off his bicycle clips.

In the second stanza, he runs his hand around the font and notices the condition of the roof that ‘looks almost new,’ suggesting that it has been taken care of. Clearly the parishioners are caring for this church, cleaning and maintaining it. After a short pause, he walks up to the altar, moves to the lectern and from the open Bible reads a few words aloud. Drawing on past memories of church-going, he concludes ‘Here endeth,’ only to be challenged by hearing his own mocking tone echoed back to him and is taken aback a little when the echoes ‘snigger briefly.’

He moves back to the door, and signs the visitors’ book. But, as if to remove any significance from that gesture, he then puts an Irish sixpence in the box. If this is a church near Belfast, perhaps a small coin from the Republic of Ireland is a disdainful gesture towards Northern Protestants. But if the church is in England, then perhaps he is suggesting with a worthless coin that the church is worthless too and ‘not worth stopping for’ – his compromise between giving nothing and giving real money.

However, he is still drawn to churches and wonders why this is so. He shows that he knows more about churches than he admits to the reader in the first stanza. There he talks about ‘brass and stuff’ and ‘the holy end’ in a dismissive tone; but now he talks about cathedrals with their ‘parchment, plate and pyx.’

The casual language in the first stanza shows indifference rather than ignorance. Now the visitor is more engaged, and uses the word ‘we’ when wondering what will happen when churches ‘fall completely out of use.’ What then will happen to the empty buildings? Some may be preserved, but others will fall into ruin.

Larkin presents us with a stark and bleak vision of a coming time when churches fall out of use and will come to be viewed as ‘unlucky places,’ visited by people moved by superstition rather than religious belief. There is wry humour in the suggestion that they will be let ‘rent-free to rain and sheep,’ evoking images of a new flock and a different set of pastoral needs.

In the last three stanzas, Larkin uses long sentences and a lack of clear endings or breaks between the stanzas to show how challenged he has become with his current train of thought. As the church deteriorates, it will become less recognisable and its purpose will fade from memory.

The poet wonders who will be the very last person to visit this place, understanding its significance.

The possible visitors in the future are described in dismissive terms. One is ‘one of the crew’ who are interested in architecture; another hungers for anything that is antique, a ‘ruin bibber’; while a third yearns to be part of the ceremonies that once took place here. The references to ‘a whiff / of gown-and-bands and organ pipes and myrrh’ recall Eliot once again the visit and the gifts of the Magi, gold, frankincense and myrrh, but also show this third category of visitor, with an antiquarian interest in old churches, is more interested in the symbols of the Christmas message than in the substance of its real meaning.

Churches give meaning to the key moments in life – birth, marriage and death – and link them through ceremonies, thereby giving a meaning and coherence to the participants’ lives. Without the church, such events would not be linked and would exist only in separation from one another.

Despite Larkin’s lack of interest in religion, he acknowledges that it has given meaning and consistency to people’s lives and has treated all equally. He is now pleased to stand in silence in the church.

The final stanza is more solemn than those before it. The repetition of the word ‘serious’ in the first line – ‘a serious house on serious earth’ – sets the tone. The language changes from a casual conversational tone to a more formal register: ‘blent air,’ ‘recognized and robed’, ‘gravitating to this ground’ …

Through the church, all our human ‘compulsions’ are acknowledged as important and are given the status of destinies. The church takes people and their paths through life seriously. There is a part of most people that longs to be treated with such seriousness and respect: ‘that much can never be obsolete.’

Larkin now admits that although churches are just an empty shell to him, they have played an important role in the lives of their congregations. Without the church, people will be somewhat adrift in the world and may well ‘gravitate’ to this place where life was once given meaning.

Compare his description of this church as ‘This special shell … this accoutred frowsty barn’ with TS Eliot's description of the church in Little Gidding:

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all.

At the end of this poem, Larkin accepts that people will always need churches to give meaning to their lives. Even in its ruined state, a church will draw people to it. They will recognise the role it played in life and will see it as a sacred place, even if they do not believe the same things as those who once worshipped there. God and religion represent the ideal ‘happy ending’ that everyone would like to believe exists.

The poet admits that the church because it is a serious place, where serious questions can be asked. Humanity will always have a hunger to ask those big questions like ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘Where do we go when we die?’

The poem offers a serious challenge to theologians, and has been cited, for example, by Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank in For the Parish, A Critique of Fresh Expressions (London: SCM, 2010. p 151).

In an interview, Larkin once said: ‘No one could help hoping Christianity was true, or at least the happy ending – rising from the dead and our sins forgiven. One longs for these miracles, and so in a sense one longs for religion.

And the Advent hope meets all those yearnings and longings.

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