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Church Going | Study Guide

Philip Larkin

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Church Going | Context


Genre and Form

"Church Going" is a 20th-century example of lyric poetry, a form that originated in ancient Greece as verses meant to be accompanied by music played on the lyre. Lyric poetry evolved over time, dropping its instrumental accompaniment but retaining its musicality, often in formal elements such as rhythm as well as in the communication of the speaker's personal feelings. Lyric poems tend to be short and often have an identifiable meter and form—although this has become less common since Larkin's time. Typically, they are written in the first person and their most essential characteristic is that they express the speaker's emotions or reflections. The use of formal lyric poetry reflects Larkin's desire to write traditional English verse rather than embrace free verse (irregular meter). This emphasis on tradition rather than innovation is typical of the Movement. The next generation of poets reacted against this literary conservatism. The British Poetry Revival of the 1960s and 70s sought to escape the rules of structured, realistic poetry.

The poem is written in seven stanzas of nine lines each. It keeps a fairly regular rhyme scheme, or pattern of end rhymes— when the last syllables or words in two or more lines rhyme with each other. The rhyme scheme of "Church Going" has the pattern ABABCADCD. This means that lines 1, 3, and 6 rhyme, and three pairs of lines rhyme: lines 2 and 4, lines 5 and 8, and lines 7 and 9. Many of these examples reflect slant rhyme, where the final words of two or more lines end in comparable but not duplicate consonant sounds or the final syllables contain assonance (repeated vowel sounds) or consonance (repeated consonant sounds).

The meter of the poem generally follows loose iambic pentameter. English is naturally somewhat iambic. That is, it frequently falls into a pattern of iambs. An iamb is a metric foot, or unit, made up of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable. Examples from the poem's first stanza are "I step inside" and "another church." Iambic pentameter means that there are five iambs—10 syllables—filling each line. Of course, spoken English is not exclusively iambic. Larkin's variations of the iambic pentameter create emphasis and make the rhythm more closely mimic the variations of natural speech.

The Movement

Philip Larkin is the most well-known poet associated with the Movement. The Movement comprised a group of English writers who looked skeptically upon the growing European influence on English poetry. They rejected both the idealism of Romanticism, a period that dated from the end of the 18th century to the first decades of the 19th, and the free form poetry of modernism. The modernist movement, which lasted from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, deliberately broke with social and literary conventions. Modernist literature forces the reader to construct meaning from text that is often innovative and experimental in style. In contrast, the poets of the Movement—rooted firmly in England's culture and literary legacy—advocated a return to traditional English poetic forms. They scorned the obscure, overly intellectual poetry of modernist poets, which they saw as elitist, and sought to write clearly and unpretentiously about ordinary topics.

Other poets of the Movement included Kingsley Amis (1922–95), a friend of Larkin's, and Thom Gunn (1929–2004). The poets rose to prominence, however briefly, in the 1950s, leading to only two anthologies of Movement poems, Poets of the 1950s (1955) and New Lines (1956). Despite its short-lived heyday, the Movement had a great deal of influence on English literature, and Larkin remains a well-loved British poet. Larkin's collection The Less Deceived (1955), in which "Church Going" appears, was published at the Movement's height. The down-to-earth tone and realistic, unpretentious speaker is characteristic of the Movement, as is its adherence to formal meter and rhyme scheme.

The Church of England

The speaker of the poem visits a church belonging to the Church of England, which was founded by King Henry VIII (1491–1547). The king severed ties with the Catholic pope over the pope's refusal to grant the king an annulment of his first marriage. When Henry VIII passed the Act of Supremacy in 1534, he formed the Church of England as the country's state church and became its head. The Church of England remains intertwined with government. It is governed by the monarch and is involved in state and lawmaking functions. For example, the monarch has to approve the appointment of bishops, and 26 bishops serve in Parliament's House of Lords as the Lords Spiritual. Clergy preside at state weddings, state funerals, and coronations.

Although England is increasingly multicultural and multifaith, the Church of England remains an important part of English identity and culture. The country is divided into 43 dioceses, each of which is further divided into areas called parishes. Each parish is headed by a priest who typically works from the parish's church building, where services and other religious rites and celebrations occur. As a result, nearly 16,000 church buildings stand throughout England, thousands of which date to medieval times. Their beautiful architecture and historical value makes them a popular destination for visitors, even though Sunday church attendance is typically low—and declining.

The ubiquity (presence everywhere) of these parish churches is important to the context of "Church Going," because the speaker says he regularly stops at them as he goes about his otherwise churchless life. The specific architectural details and objects found in these churches are important aspects of the poem.

  • little books: books used for services in the Church of England, including hymnals and the Book of Common Prayer, which contains the order of services and the prayers used for those services
  • sprawlings of flowers: flowers placed near the altar of the church for services
  • brass and stuff: brass used for the candlesticks, crucifix, monumental brasses, and other items and fixtures of churches
  • holy end: Churches are often built in the shape of a cross, with the main altar—where the items needed for Communion are placed—at the shorter end.
  • font: basin, often on a pedestal, that holds water blessed for use in baptisms or daily blessings. Often this "holy" water will be left in the baptismal font for people to dip their fingers in as a reminder of their baptisms.
  • lectern ... "Here endeth."—At the front of the church, a book stand called a lectern holds a lectionary, a book with the Bible readings for each service. After each reading, the reader concludes by saying "Here endeth the lesson."
  • large-scale verses: Print in the lectionary is typically large and sometimes very decorative.
  • plate and pyx: A pyx is a small box in which is kept consecrated bread, or bread used for Communion. There are a number of containers for consecrated bread; a pyx is a very small one often used for carrying Communion to the sick. The plate referred to in the poem could be a collection plate used for donations or the plate used in Communion, often called the paten. Both pyx and plate can be quite ornate.
  • buttress: wood or stone support structure found on the outside of many older churches
  • rood-loft: In medieval and Renaissance churches, a screen known as the rood screen separated the chancel—the part of the church that holds the altar—from the nave, the main part of the church where the congregation sits. Some churches also had a loft above this rood screen, called the rood loft.
  • this cross of ground: reference to the cross-shaped, or cruciform, footprint of the church
  • so many dead lie around: Many parish churches include an adjoining graveyard, called a churchyard.
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