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Church Going | Study Guide

Philip Larkin

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Church Going | Symbols



The setting of the poem, a church, is the most potent symbol in the poem. The speaker comes upon an Anglican church with an adjoining graveyard as he is bicycling. At the moment of the poem, the church is empty, but clues abound that Sunday services continue there. The speaker describes it as filled with a "musty, unignorable silence" and notes that its roof has recently been either cleaned or restored. It is, therefore, old and musty yet still shows signs of care and use. Not surprisingly, the church symbolizes religion—particularly the English religion of the Anglican Church—but also religious belief in general. Its musty smell suggests that religion is old and decaying. Its continued care and use shows that English religion is, though in decline, currently being used and tended by some.

As the speaker contemplates the future of the church and thus the future of religious faith generally, he reveals another layer to this symbolism. He considers the function of the church and of religion, and he finds that it meets a human need for what the speaker calls seriousness. This need for seriousness—for the contemplation of life's meaning and brevity, perhaps—is more universal than religion. The idea of "all our compulsions" are met, recognized, or decried as destiny also seems fundamental. Church might be a place where, by accepting their compulsions, people discover their purpose. As the speaker discovers in himself the desire to be "more serious," he finds that a church with its graveyard is a "proper" place to find greater wisdom. While the church begins as a symbol of religion, it ends as a symbol of whatever human needs religion has historically fulfilled.


The flowers in the poem adorn the church for Sunday's religious service. Cut fresh for Sunday, they now turn brown and wilt so that they have a sprawling appearance. Like the church itself, these flowers represent the church and religion while also standing for something more universal. The flowers, like the religious observance they are meant to beautify, are past their prime. They played an important role at a past time and are now "brownish"—dying. The speaker believes religious belief and practice are fading and dying, just as the flowers are.

However, the poem ends by exploring the speaker's own big questions—about life and death, the passage of time, and the purpose of human existence. The final image of the poem is not one of the death of religion but of death itself: the buried dead in the graveyard. In this context, the flowers are a reminder that life may be beautiful and even sacred, but it is also brief, and death is always at the end of it.

Weeds and Brambles

The weeds and brambles in the poem grow around the church. The speaker imagines the future of the church as religious belief gives way to superstition, which in turn gives way to increasing obscurity and disuse. To the speaker, this process seems inevitable. As a result, he imagines that as the church is used less and less, it will become overgrown with weeds, grasses, and brambles. Its shape will become less recognizable over time, and fewer people will visit it. The image of the overgrown church represents the forces that dwarf human life and human endeavor: time and nature. Time leads the church to obsolescence, and it leads human lives to their ends. The forces of nature continue on, indifferent to whatever purpose a church's existence or a person's life once had.

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