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Church Going | Study Guide

Philip Larkin

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Church Going | Summary



Stanza 1

The speaker is outside a church, and once he is "sure there's nothing going on," he enters. The door "thud[s] shut" behind him. He sees the hymnals and prayer books, organ, pews, and the now-wilting "sprawlings of flowers" that had decorated the church on Sunday. Near the altar are objects, some made of brass, to be used in services. He senses a silence that can't be ignored. Since he has no hat to remove, he removes his bicycle clips, or straps worn around the bottom of one's pants to keep them from being caught in the chain.

Stanza 2

The speaker walks farther into the church, runs his hand around the baptismal font, and looks at the roof. He wonders briefly if it has been restored or simply cleaned, reflecting that "someone would know: I don't." He steps up to the lectern (which holds the Bible) and reads from its pages, which contain readings appointed for the services. He ends his reading by saying "Here endeth" the lesson, as is customary, and feels that he inadvertently spoke these words more loudly than he'd intended. The echo of his voice sounds like laughing. He returns to the back of the church, signs the visitor book, and places a small amount of money in the collection box. He reflects that "the place was not worth stopping for."

Stanza 3

Yet, he notes, "stop I did," as he often does. Typically, his stops end "at a loss like this," just as this one has. He's unsure what he should be looking for. He wonders what will happen to churches when people stop attending them. He thinks that perhaps a few cathedrals will be maintained as museums, with their liturgical items on display in locked cases. The others, perhaps, will be open "rent-free to rain and sheep" or avoided "as unlucky places."

Stanza 4

The speaker continues to wonder what might happen to churches when they are no longer used or useful. He wonders if superstitious women will bring their children to the church and its adjoining graveyard to touch a stone or pick healing "simples," or herbs. Will they go there, he wonders, on certain dates to see ghosts of the buried dead? He acknowledges that "Power of some sort or other will go on" there for some time, until even superstition is dead. Asking "what remains when disbelief has gone?" he imagines grass and brambles among the ruins of a former church.

Stanza 5

The original shape and purpose of the church will fade as the weeks go by, the speaker thinks. Then his wondering turns to the final person who will come to the church at a future time seeking it "for what it was," that is, for its original purpose. Will this person be interested in the architecture of the place or maybe nostalgic for the religious rituals once performed there? Or will this person be the speaker's "representative," more like him?

Stanza 6

The question raised by the speaker about the church's last visitor continues through the seventh line of stanza 6. The speaker wonders if this person, like himself, might be uninterested in religion yet still be attentive to the church because of what it "held" through many years. It was a place where births, deaths, and marriages were recorded or performed, rituals now found "only in separation" but "for which was built / This special shell." He says he doesn't know the worth of the church, but he enjoys standing in its silence.

Stanza 7

The speaker continues this new thought, calling the church a "serious house on serious earth." Within it, human compulsions are reframed as "destinies," things destined to happen, and are thus given value. This function, he concludes, will continue to be needed over time. A person will continue to discover in himself the desire to be "more serious." This desire will bring him to "this ground," to church. These are places where the man believes wisdom can be found, even if the wisdom comes simply from the proximity of so many dead.


Effects of Rhyme and Meter

The poem follows a fairly regular form and rhyme scheme. It contains seven stanzas of nine lines each, with a rhyme scheme of ABABCADCD. Some of these end words do not identically rhyme, however, but sound similar enough to one another, a technique called slant rhyme, or sometimes near rhymes or oblique rhymes. This simply means that while the words share some similarity in sound, they are not quite a perfect rhyme. For example, in the first stanza of "Church Going," the a rhyme is on/stone/organ, where the last word does not have the same vowel tone as the other two end words. In stanza 2, the a rhyme is font/don't/meant. These are slant rhymes. In contrast, stanza 4's a rhyme is come/some/random—a far more exact rhyme. In general, the consistent form and rhyme scheme reflect the Movement's commitment to writing formal verse. Yet, the slant rhymes allow the poem's structure to come subtly through rather than dominate the poem. Because of this subtlety, the conversational language of the poem is not impeded by the form, but supported by it.

In a similar way, the meter of the poem predominantly follows iambic pentameter—five iambs per line. A poem written in strict iambic pentameter with no variation, however, would have a singsong quality. Larkin breaks iambic rhythms to add variety, create emphasis, and make the language sound more like conversational speech. The poet uses different patterns of accented syllables to vary the meter.

  • The spondee, made of two accented syllables, is commonly used to vary the rhythm of an iambic poem. An example of a spondee comes in the second line of the first stanza: after the stressed word door comes the phrase thud shut. The single syllables of door thud shut and the short-u vowel sounds of thud shut emphasize the sound of the door closing behind the speaker.
  • The trochee, an accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable, and the dactyl, an accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables, are often used by Larkin to vary an overall iambic rhythm. Both begin with a stressed syllable, the opposite of the iamb, so they can be used to bring a hiccup to a rhythm that gallops along. For example, Larkin uses a trochee, sprawlings, in the fourth line of the first stanza—an otherwise iambic line. This emphasizes the description of the way the flowers are wilting untidily. Mounting, another trochee, occurs at the beginning of line 4 in the second stanza, mimicking the gravitas with which the speaker steps up to the lectern. The following line begins with the dactyl Hectoring, which is followed by two trochees, large-scale and verses. These front-loaded rhythmic feet create the sense that the speaker reads the Bible verses with a plodding cadence.
  • The anapest, two unaccented syllables followed by an accented syllable, is also common. For example, the question "Cleaned, or restored?" in Stanza 2 breaks the iambic meter. It begins with a stressed syllable followed by an anapest: "or restored." The effect is to emphasize the way the speaker's thoughts intrude into his observations. He's running his hand over the baptismal font and gazing upward, with his senses engaged. Suddenly, his mind breaks focus and offers a question—a question that serves to distance himself from his own sensory experience. The tension between the speaker's immersion in the mood of the church and the ways in which he distances himself from the church is an important feature of the poem. Here, it is emphasized by the meter.

Line Breaks and Caesuras

The other way Larkin varies his iambic rhythm is to use a combination of end-stopped and enjambed lines, with many lines containing caesuras. When a line is end-stopped, with the punctuation coming at the end of the line, the full thought comes to a conclusion at the same time as the line. An end-stopped line feels finished, and any rhyme scheme is emphasized by the end-stops. Putting a period, question mark, or semicolon at the end of a stanza—as Larkin does in stanzas 2, 3, 6, and 7—gives a more final feeling to the thought. Using a comma to end a stanza, as Larkin does in stanzas 1, 4, and 5, has the effect of connecting the two stanzas.

In contrast, an enjambed line is not end-stopped. The idea, sentence, or phrase flows across the line break and into the next line or stanza. Enjambment connects lines of a poem without punctuation so that a thought is not confined to any particular length. The thought or idea can be short, like "flowers, cut / For Sunday." Or it can be long and build upon itself, as in stanza 6: "Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt / Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground ..." Enjambment often increases the pace of the poem and adds surprise as the line continues its thought.

A caesura is a pause within a line, typically marked by a period, comma, or em dash. When several caesuras occur, they can affect the pace of the poem, causing a slowing and creating space in the line or stanza. This creates emphasis. For example: "And death, and thoughts of these—for which was built / This special shell? For, though..." Here at the end of in stanza 6, the use of numerous caesuras slows the pace and draws attention to this moment of approaching insight.

Tone and Diction

Philip Larkin creates his tone in "Church Going" through informal, conversational diction, or word choice. His informal style, using contractions such as there's, I'd, and I've, is disarming. The reader feels invited into a private moment. The speaker's awkwardness, taking off his cycle clips because he's not wearing a hat and is standing uncomfortably in an empty church, is intimate and engaging.

The poem's diction shapes the attitude of the speaker toward the church and all that it stands for. In the first few stanzas, the tone is observant—even curious—yet disdainful. The speaker is curious enough to enter, run his hand over the font, and read a few verses from the lectern. He wonders if the roof is cleaned or restored, and he thinks briefly about who might know, dismissing the thought with "I don't." And although he is clearly interested enough to stop in not just this church, but a series of them, he doesn't speak respectfully of them at first. He notes that there's "nothing" happening at the church, he uses the pejorative "little books" for the hymnal and Book of Common Prayer, and he notes the "brass and stuff" at the "holy end." He describes the smell as musty. At the end of stanza 2, he thinks, "the place was not worth stopping for."

In stanzas 3 and 4, the tone and its focus change slightly. It becomes less curious and disdainful of the church, and more curious and disdainful of the people who go into churches, or into the graveyards adjoining them. This, as stanza 3 explains, includes the speaker, who often stops at churches even though he is not yet sure why. He includes himself by using the pronoun "we" in this stanza. "We" might keep a "few cathedrals chronically on show," and avoid old churches as unlucky places or as places of superstitious mystery. In the next stanza, the speaker puts a little more distance between himself and those who might visit churches in the future. Now they are not "we." They are "dubious" women (either of dubious virtue, or doubting) who might visit a churchyard with children to gather herbs and who are interested in an undefined, random, "power of some sort or other."

In stanza 5, the speaker continues to speculate on the people—not him or "we"—who might be interested in the increasingly obscure church. He imagines a pathetic "ruin-bibber," or addict, who is "randy for," or attracted to, old buildings and who knows the names of the more obscure parts of a church. He imagines someone who recalls the incense and music of Christmas services, but he refers to this person in a derogatory way: "Christmas-addict." None of these people seem worthy of respect—not the dubious women, the junkie, the poor soul who loves old buildings, nor the sad "Christmas addict."

In stanzas 6 and 7, an important shift in tone takes place. At the end of stanza 5, the speaker asks if the final future visitor to the church will be his "representative." According to stanza 6, he means one who is "bored" and "uninformed" by churches and religion, yet strangely still compelled to stop and walk into them. The words "tending," unsplit," and "held ... so long and equably" in stanza 6 create a tone of appreciation. The speaker doesn't have to have religious belief to recognize and appreciate the role religion played in preserving rituals and in history, even though he thinks religious practice is coming to a close.

In the last half of stanza 6, an even more significant tonal shift begins to takes place. At first the word choice creates an unsettled tone that quickly shifts between appreciation and disdain. Words such as special and pleases still carry the tone of appreciation. Yet, the description of the church as a "special shell"—a husk of what it once was—and the phrases "I've no idea" and "accoutred frowsty barn" (alluding to the birthplace of Christ) carry the disdain. At the same time, the words only in separation and death begin to introduce more somber content.

This more somber tone blooms in the final stanza. The church is a "serious house on serious earth" that was built for those who have a "hunger ... to be more serious." It is a place where our desires and compulsions are "recognized" and given the dignity of being called "destinies." This somber tone leads to the moment of realization: "that much can never be obsolete." The speaker's alternating disdain and appreciation for the church resolve in this moment. He realizes that though religion seems increasingly irrelevant to modern life, there is something vital and enduring about "a serious house on serious earth."


This poem is written primarily from the first-person point of view, which gives readers the sense that they are in the mind of the speaker, who describes his feelings, thought process, sensory experience, observations, and realizations in almost stream-of-consciousness fashion. Readers are there with him as he touches, sees, and smells the church and then awkwardly realizes that he has no hat to remove so removes his cycle clips. This window into the speaker's mind makes his inner conflict readily apparent. He is conflicted. In the words of critic Kateryna Schray, the poem explores all his "doubts, fears, and frustrations" about faith. He believes that religion becomes obsolete. Yet, he admits that there is something about churches that keeps him stopping by.

This tension reflects in the way the speaker moves into and away from the experience of being in the church. He finds it "unignorable" yet derides it with belittling talk of "little books" and "brass and stuff." He immerses himself in the sensory experience of feeling the baptismal font with his hand and even reads from the lectionary, giving the scriptural lesson its customary conclusion: "Here endeth the lesson." All the time, his mind makes fun of him for these practices. It makes him feel awkward, characterizes the echoes of his reading as sniggering, and randomly wonders about the state of the roof. The speaker admits that he regularly goes into churches in this manner—when no one else is there—but he also feels a bit silly about it. He is not sure why he is so drawn to them.

The conflict between the speaker's pleasure in being in the church and his disdain for the system of belief it represents is the driving force of the poem. This central conflict begins to track toward a resolution in the final two stanzas. In stanza 6, the speaker recognizes that the rituals "for which was built / This special shell"—marriage, birth, death—once had great value. He immediately creates distance from this point, acknowledging the distance between the original place of worship for Jesus and the formal structural home to organized religion, by calling the church an "accoutred, frowsty barn," but then he admits that it pleases him to be there. The final stanza closes in on the speaker's realization that the church retains some lasting importance, even for him. He finds a way to reconcile vanishing religious belief with the greater truth that may be found in such "serious" places. The deep drives and needs of people, which lead them to religion, are real despite what the speaker thinks about religion generally. As critic Schray says, the speaker is a spirit "in struggle, sensing something greater than itself but unable to embrace it."

In coming to this realization, the speaker changes the point of view of the poem. He does not say "I was surprised to find I had a hunger to be more serious." He says "someone will forever" be discovering this hunger, deep inside himself. This someone will be drawn to churches, which he was once told were places of wisdom. This sudden change of perspective creates distance between the speaker and his deepest feelings and needs, as if shying away from them just the slightest bit. But it also shows that the speaker feels he is not alone. It may also create universality between the speaker's quest or realization and another person's or generation's quest. There are other "someones" and they, too, may feel as he does and be drawn to empty churches along their paths.

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