Course Hero. "Church Going Study Guide." Course Hero. 1 Dec. 2019. Web. 3 Feb. 2023. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Church-Going/>.
Course Hero. (2019, December 1). Church Going Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Church-Going/
(Course Hero, 2019)
Course Hero. "Church Going Study Guide." December 1, 2019. Accessed February 3, 2023. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Church-Going/.
Course Hero, "Church Going Study Guide," December 1, 2019, accessed February 3, 2023, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Church-Going/.
The primary theme of the poem—clear from its title, "Church Going"—is religion. The speaker is not a religious person, and he takes a dismissive, even disdainful, attitude toward religious belief. Clearly, he sees religion as something quickly becoming obsolete—something "going," as the title says. Religious belief is going away, fading into the past. The dying, browning flowers in the church symbolize the dying of religion. The musty smell of the church also emphasizes this aging, dying religion. The speaker then imagines what will happen when "churches fall completely out of use." He accepts this as an inevitability, wondering wryly whether people will keep a few cathedrals as museums, with their various ritual objects on display in locked cases. The use of "chronically" to describe the way people might keep these cathedrals open adds to the sense that the speaker sees this possibility as regrettable, but not unrealistic. He is doubtless aware that, after all, such museums of religious artifacts already exist, and some cathedrals already have gift shops.
As the poem moves forward, the speaker speculates on the relationship between religion and superstition. Religious belief, like any long-held belief, deteriorates into superstition, which then also fades away: "But superstition, like belief, must die." He notes that as religion fades away, its original purpose will become increasingly obscure, just as the church building will likely be overgrown with weeds.
However, in the last few stanzas, he takes a more respectful tone toward the church and, by extension, religion, noting its important function. It has held the records of marriage, birth, and death. It has been a place where people's "compulsions" are elevated to "destinies." It has been, and may still be, a place of wisdom.
The passage of time is a common theme in Larkin's poetry. "Church Going" is not the only poem with "Going" in the title. He wrote "Going," which also appeared in The Less Deceived, and "Going, Going," which appeared in his 1974 collection High Windows. Time, loss, aging, and death often intertwine in Larkin's poetry, as they do in life. Time is a destructive force on the church in "Church Going", both as the building physically ages and as religion becomes more irrelevant to modern sensibilities.
In the first stanza, he notes that the church has a musty odor that has been brewing "God knows how long." The church is already painfully old, and getting older with each passing Sunday service. He reads the lesson from the lectern and pronounces "Here endeth" too loudly. This "Here endeth," echoing in the empty church, emphasizes the old-fashioned language of the church and also its literal end. Speculating on the future of the church, as weeks pass and the weeds and brambles overgrow the building, also stresses the passage of time. He imagines churches falling "completely out of use," maintained only to display artifacts or support superstitions that themselves "must die."
The speaker's mind jumps easily from the decline of the church and the religion it represents to his own decline, and death, as time passes. Stanza 6 is characterized by the awareness of death; the last line suggests that wisdom comes from close proximity to death. The shift seems appropriate; religious practice and belief include coming to terms with death.
From the earliest lines of the poem, the speaker has a question—why does he, a nonreligious person, regularly stop in churches? This church is "another" church, into which the speaker has ventured. Part of him feels it is a waste of time: "the place was not worth stopping for." Yet, even as he thinks this, he admits he "often" stops and always end up feeling "at a loss." He stops and goes into these churches irrationally and compulsively, not for any reason he can name.
In the last few stanzas, he begins to put words to the reason for his compulsion. He notes that the church is a "serious house on serious earth." It is a place where human compulsions—perhaps even his own compulsion to visit old churches—are seen as the workings of destiny. A sense of destiny gives meaning and purpose to human desires and needs. He is surprised to discover the "hunger to be more serious" in himself, yet he sees it as a human hunger. Ultimately, confronting this hunger for seriousness in himself and realizing it is tied to his compulsion to visit churches is the point of the poem. Despite the inevitable obsolescence of religion, there is a human hunger for purpose and meaning behind religion.