Nomination: Church Going [28 July 1954. From The Less Deceived]
‘Church Going’, from Larkin’s 1955 collection The Less Deceived, stands out as a masterpiece of rhetoric, introducing a facility with register that launched a thousand imitations.
Many readers are encouraged to read ‘Church Going’ as an example of Larkin’s ambivalent relationship with the spiritual. There is little doubt that the everyman persona-narrator who takes us on this by turns solemn and irreverent guided tour experiences both a sense of futility and mystique in equal measure. An overload of sensory impression confronts our narrator upon his arrival, inspiring both bewilderment and that particular quality of ‘hunger’ for understanding he imagines will continue to draw men in. Objects here are represented as finite in their quality and, as such, they possess bathos and pathos in equal measure in this spiritual context. And yet, similarly, the environment gives rise to wonder, a sense of timelessness and an acknowledgement on balance that this is ‘a serious place on serious earth’.
And well, certainly, it is tempting to view the poem as a philosophical discourse on faith. I’ve always liked to think of Larkin as a ‘religious poet’ of sorts, and, indisputably, Larkin was uniquely gifted in transmuting the base objects of everyday life into the stuff of sacrament, as in the vase and piano stool of ‘Home is so sad’ or the ‘saucer-souvenir’ of Mr Bleaney.
But, as the title suggests – and as Larkin himself was at pains to point out – ‘Church Going’ is not a poem about God per se or, by extension, faith, but an examination of the kind of ritual and superstructure that binds our very society. The church as building and the Church as institution bear testament to the very matter of the human condition (births, deaths and marriages) and lend it a sense of gravitas and purpose through community and shared experience. At the same time, the pun in the title highlights decline. This is, we discover early on, a poem not merely about social ritual – but its current erosion.
In the modern age, the poem loses something of its force, unquestionably. Our society champions the cult of the individual, and most of us stand outside of any conventional, organised Christian religion or, indeed, any belief system at all. It can be difficult, particularly for younger readers, to see the daring – as it turned out, chillingly prophetic – and the acute social observation rendered here by Larkin. What will happen to society when the superstructure falls away? Will there linger on in us all some abstracted cultural memory of human connection, of common purpose and belief? Will the Church become a relic, debased into meaningless ‘antique’? A place for ‘Christmas addicts’ only? We live largely in the realisation of that prophecy.
‘Church Going’ ventures a world whose shadow was already beginning to fall during the great socio-political upheaval that began in the mid-fifties, at the time of this poem’s publication. As with all of Larkin’s work, there is no conclusive greater good either way. God proffers no salvation, and the Church with its taboo and veto (see ‘High Windows’) breeds sexual neuroticism and inscrutable guilt. But everything it would seem – even, or perhaps especially, the loss of self-deception – must come at a cost.