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Church Going | Study Guide

Philip Larkin

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Church Going | Narrative Voice


In "Church Going," the speaker uses diction and style to lead readers through his varied responses to being in the church. Through craft, Larkin reveals speaker's inner conflict and drives the poem toward a moment of realization, or epiphany.

The speaker's conflicted feelings about being in the church are revealed by changes in the poem's tone. The speaker is not a religious person, and he initially takes a dismissive, even disdainful, attitude toward religious belief. He repeatedly reminds readers that he is not a believer or churchgoer himself. He calls the prayer book and hymnal "little books" and refers to the "brass and stuff" in the church. He concludes that the church was "not worth stopping for."

As the speaker's thoughts turn to the nature of belief, they are not more kind. He considers what it might mean that belief is becoming obsolete. His disdain falls on those who would keep a few cathedrals "chronically" on display even after no one attends them. Similarly, he thinks poorly of those "dubious" women who might treat the abandoned church as a place of superstition. And he has nothing good to say about those who might visit the church simply to see its antiquated architecture or feel nostalgic for the smell of Christmas incense.

Yet, this disdain is only one aspect of the speaker's attitude toward the church and its believers. The speaker also feels, despite his unbelief, that the silence of the church is "unignorable." He admits that he stops regularly at churches, only to end up "at a loss," wondering what he should be looking for—what should be found. This sense of being drawn to something is in conflict with his desire to stay out of it. He doesn't know much about the church, and doesn't seem to want to know. "I've no idea / What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth," he says, implying with his casual tone that he doesn't care, either. But in the next line he says that it "pleases" him to be there.

All of these tonal shifts set up an internal conflict that must be resolved, and the final stanza brings that resolution. In this stanza, the speaker finally abandons his disdainful tone altogether and verges on the sublime. He calls the church a "serious house on serious earth" and says it is a place where "all our compulsions meet, / Are recognized, and robed as destinies." He can see the value of the church as a place that elevates human needs into something greater. If readers are surprised by this shift, it may be because the speaker is also surprised. He's looked inside himself and discovered, to his shock, a hunger "to be more serious."

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