02 December 2016

Two poems for Advent
by Philip Larkin

The Queen’s University Belfast, where Philip Larkin worked in the Library from 1950 to 1955 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This morning, for the office and daily prayers in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, I prayed with the Litany of the Cross of the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral, and instead of a reflection I read the poem Church Going by Philip Larkin, who was baptised in Coventry Cathedral, who spent part of his late teens in Lichfield, and who once worked as a librarian in Queen's University Belfast.

I read this poem because it echoes some of our Advent hopes and anticipations, and because later this evening [2 December 2016] the poet Philip Larkin is being honoured in Westminster Abbey, 31 years after his death, when a ledger stone with his name was placed in Poets’ Corner, alongside great literary giants from Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens to Thomas Hardy, TS Eliot, CS Lewis, John Betjeman and Ted Hughes.

The stone includes words from one of his best-known works, An Arundel Tomb (1964):

our almost instinct almost true What will survive of us is love.

His stone lies at the foot of Anthony Trollope’s, and a few places away from Lord Byron and Dylan Thomas. The abbey’s masons, according to tradition, have placed a new penny under the stone to date its installation.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was as far from the beating heart of literary London as it is possible to imagine, and in recent years, following the posthumous publication of his letters in 1992, he has been accused of holding sexist and racist views.

Professor Lisa Jardine, Professor of Renaissance Studies at University College, London, who died last year, famously dismissed Larkin as a ‘casual, habitual racist and an easy misogynist.’ On the other hand, Clive James says ‘Philip Larkin really was the greatest poet of his time.’

However, the Dean of Westminster Abbey, the Very Revd Dr John Hall, decided it is ‘the right time’ to honour Larkin and that the greatness of his poetry outweighs any objections about his opinions on race and women.

A spokesperson for Westminster Abbey said: ‘The Dean feels now is the right time to memorialise Larkin. Whatever rows have taken place about his views, the bigger picture is his poetry and what shines through is that he’s one of our greatest poets and should be recognised as such.’

Larkin was born in Coventry and baptised in Covetnry Cathedral. But during World War II Coventry with its military factories was a regular target for German bombing raids. Following the Coventry blitz, Sydney and Eva Larkin moved with their family to No 33 Cherry Orchard, Lichfield, the family home of an aunt and uncle. However, the house was too small for all the Larkins, and Philip Larkin moved out to another house in Cherry Orchard. There he had a room to himself and he regularly walked in to the centre of Lichfield to drink in the George.

While he was in Lichfield, Larkin wrote three poems: ‘Christmas 1940,’ ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Out in the lane I pause,’ which was written when he returned to Lichfield for a Christmas holiday in 1940.

After graduating from Oxford with a first in English Language and Literature, Larkin worked at Queen's University, Belfast, and then as a librarian at Hull University.

In 2003, he was named in a Poetry Book Society survey as Britain’s best-loved poet of the previous 50 years. The Philip Larkin Society has long campaigned for him to be memorialised at Poets’ Corner.

Indeed Larkin seemed surprisingly confident of his place in Poets’ Corner. When he attended the unveiling of a memorial to WH Auden in 1974, he grumpily remarked in a letter to his mother: ‘Poets’ Corner seems to be getting pretty crowded! No doubt there will be room for me.’

Again, a year before he died, after attending the memorial service in Westminster Abbey in 1984 for the poet laureate Sir John Betjeman, Larkin wrote to his mother predicting that he too would see himself acclaimed as one of the greats: ‘Poets’ Corner is pretty crowded, but I think there will be a space for me.’

Dean Hall, who conducted today’s ceremony, explained: ‘While it is the Dean of Westminster Abbey who makes the decision as to who should be commemorated at Poets’ Corner – whether the cultural establishment approves or not – I get the feeling in Larkin’s case that they do.’

Dean Hall said: ‘Philip Larkin will be memorialised very near Geoffrey Chaucer finding a fitting place among his fellow poets. I have no doubt that his work and memory will live on as long as the English language continues to be understood.’

Dean Hall says: ‘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.’

The dedication ceremony is being led by the Dean of Westminster, with an address by poet and author Blake Morris, and readings by Anthony Thwaite, president of the Philip Larkin Society, which commissioned the memorial, the artist Grayson Perry, and the actor Sir Tom Courtenay.

Although Larkin is being honoured 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.

Larkin once described himself as ‘an agnostic, I suppose, but an Anglican agnostic, of course.’ Yet two of his poems point to the watching and waiting theme of Advent. The Dedicated was written on 18 September 1946 and was published in XX Poems, poems collected and privately printed by Larkin in 1951.

The Dedicated by Philip Larkin

Some must employ the scythe
Upon the grasses,
That the walks be smooth
For the feet of the angel.
Some keep in repair
The locks, that the visitor unhindered passes
To the innermost chamber.

Some have for endeavour
To sign away life
As lover to lover,
Or a bird using its wings
To fly to the fowler’s compass,
Not out of willingness,
But being aware of
Eternal requirings.

And if they have leave
To pray, it is for contentment
If the feet of the dove
Perch on the scythe’s handle,
Perch once, and then depart
Their knowledge. After, they wait
Only the colder advent,
The quenching of candles.

Arrivals, departures is set in Belfast and was written there by Larkin in January 1953. It was first published in Fantasy Poems no 21 (March 1954), and in Q no 11, Queen’s University Belfast, in early 1955.

Arrivals, departures, by Philip Larkin

This town has docks where channel boats come sidling;
Tame water lanes, tall sheds, the traveller sees
(His bag of samples knocking at his knees),
And hears, still under slackened engines gliding,
His advent blurted to the morning shore.

And we, barely recalled from sleep there, sense
Arrivals lowing in a doleful distance –
Horny dilemmas at the gate once more.
Come and choose wrong, they cry, come and choose wrong; And so we rise. At night again they sound,

Calling the traveller now, the outward bound:
O not for long, they cry, I not for long –
And we are nudged from comfort, never knowing
How safely we may disregard their blowing,
Or if, this night, happiness is going.

Praying the ‘Litany of Reconciliation’
from Coventry Cathedral in Advent

‘Father Forgive’ … the Cross of Nails and the Litany of Reconciliation in Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We often pray the Litany in the Book of Common Prayer (see pp 175-178) as our Friday morning office in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. However, this morning our prayers incorporate the Litany of Reconciliation from the Community of the Cross of Nails in Coventry Cathedral.

The Ministry of Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral shaped many of the priorities of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, when he was a canon in Coventry.

For over 50 years, Coventry Cathedral has been a dynamic centre of worship and mission, a place of pilgrimage, liturgical creativity, and healing; a focus for reconciliation locally, nationally and internationally; for education and the arts; a venue for national services and television and radio broadcasts; and a focal point for the City, the region, and even for the world.

Following the bombing of Coventry’s mediaeval cathedral in 1940, the Provost, the Very Revd Richard Howard, had the words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the wall behind the charred cross and the Altar of the ruined building.

He explained that he had not used the phrase ‘Father forgive Them’ … because we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3: 23).

These words moved generations of people and are prayed in the Litany of Reconciliation every Friday at noon outside in the ruins of the mediaeval cathedral in Coventry and in many other places around the world by the Community of the Cross of Nails.

The Litany of Reconciliation, based on the seven cardinal sins, was written in 1958 by Canon Joseph Poole, the first Precentor of the new, post-war cathedral in Coventry.

This Litany is a universal and timeless confession of humanity’s failings, but it evokes us to approach these sins and weaknesses in the forgiveness of God’s love.

The Litany of Reconciliation (Coventry Cathedral):

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
Father Forgive.

The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
Father Forgive.

The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
Father Forgive.

Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
Father Forgive.

Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
Father Forgive.

The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,
Father Forgive.

The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
Father Forgive.

Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

A prayer for today in the Prayer Diary of USPG, the Anglican mission agency:

Pray for an end to gender inequality in our churches. Pray that Christians would set an example to the world as a people who address the concerns of women.

Reflection: Church Going, by Philip Larkin

The Advent Collect:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Lord’s Prayer ...

A Prayer of Saint John Chrysostom ...

The Grace ...

The Readings:

Isaiah 3: 8-15; Psalm 40; Matthew 22: 1-14.

Matthew 22: 1-14:

1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.’

Westminster Abbey … Philip Larkin is being added to the names in Poets’ Corner this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying in Advent with USPG,
(6): 2 December 2016

Each morning in Advent I am using the USPG Prayer Diary in my prayers

Patrick Comerford

This is the first week of Advent, which began last Sunday [27 November 2016]. Throughout this time of preparation for Christ’s coming at Christmas, I am praying each morning and using for my reflections the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency, USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

USPG is also marking the time around the beginning of Advent, from 25 November to 10 December, as ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.’

The USPG Prayer Diary:

Friday 2 December 2016:

Pray for an end to gender inequality in our churches. Pray that Christians would set an example to the world as a people who address the concerns of women.

Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, the Church of Ireland, Holy Communion):

Isaiah 29: 17-24; Psalm 27: 1-4, 16, 17; Matthew 9: 27-31.

The Advent Collect:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Continued tomorrow