(from “The Less Deceived”. I've footnoted certain unfamiliar words. For a fantastic summary of the poem, one which explains it in very simple language, go to http://www.shmoop.com/church-going/summary.html
Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
"Here endeth" much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
 A container that holds the wafer used as the host in communion
 Medicinal plants or herbs
 A stone support built against the side of a wall
 In churches, the rood loft is a display gallery above the rood screen, the piece which often divides off the section of the church reserved for church singers and musicians.
 A steady drinker, although obviously it’s used here to mean someone with a steady devotion to church ruins (instead of alcohol).
 Bands are a clergyman’s collars.
 To “accouter” is “ to clothe or equip, typically in something noticeable or impressive.”
You never forget your first love. And this was the first Larkin I loved. I read it a few months before graduating college, around the same time I completed my transition from Orthodox Jew to orthodox atheist. Yet even while I was giving up personal religious practice, I still frequently attended religious services. I consistently arrived late to Friday night davening at Hillel, and because I worked multiple mornings a week in a library right next to Memorial Church, I often attended the church’s morning service. I was headed towards a life where I didn’t believe in God, but I still frequently found myself in houses of God.
Or as Larkin writes, “Yet stop I did: in fact I often do.”
You cherish some poems because they espouse truths you feel deeply and understand well. Others, however, you cherish because they verbalize truths you feel deeply but can’t fully articulate and make sense of. For me, this poem was one of the latter. I read this poem, and suddenly my own actions made a bit more sense to myself.
“Church Going” was published in The Less Deceived 1955. Like “Broadcast,” it too is a very autobiographical poem. In a 1981 interview, Larkin explained “It came from the first time I saw a ruined church in Northern Ireland, and I’d never seen a ruined church before - discarded. It shocked me. Now of course it’s commonplace: churches are not so much ruined as turned into bingo-halls, warehouses for the refrigerators or split-level houses for architects.”
By the mid 1950s: the church of England was in the process of a long and gradual decline both in numbers and authority to the point where, according to author Callum Brown, modern Britain is one of the most secular societies in history. When Larkin wrote this poem, churches were indeed becoming “A shape less recognizable each week,/ A purpose more obscure.” Larkin had kept a newspaper clipping from the Church Times on May 7, 1954, entitled “Save Our Church week” announcing a campaign for the Historic Churches Preservation Trust. In the clipping, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that over 2000 churches must be helped at once from falling into ruin. Each time I read those lines, I recall a late-night college bullshitting session with a friend who described a future where tour groups will enter a large building and stand in awe and confusion by the unfamiliar images and figures adorning the walls. The tour guide will have to explain, “These buildings are called churches. Thousands of years ago, people worshipped a God named Jesus, and they would come to these buildings to pray.” No specific cultural practice, least of all specific religious practices, lasts forever. They evolve into new forms, still unknown to us.
Larkin hated when people called this poem a religious poem. He described it both as a secular poem and a humanist poem. The poem isn’t about the eternal existence of God and divine power. Larkin doesn’t care about Godly concerns. Hell, he didn’t even believe God exists. Rather, Larkin is interested in the basic human compulsion for an order to our lives and how churches long provided that organization to their parishioners. People will always hunger to believe this world is the product more than mere randomness - “Power of some sort will go on/ In games, in riddles, seemingly at random.” - and this poems focuses on the fact that the church’s specific power to offer this power is in decline.
What loss does our speaker mourn? The holism the church and religion offered to our life’s events by bringing together “marriage, and birth,/ And death, and thoughts of these.” (This is another great line breaking, with the jump to “And death” signifying the rupture of death to our lives.) Both the poem and Larkin’s correspondence are clear on point. In a letter to Monica Jones in 1954, he explains that his poem is trying to make people see “the church as a place where people came to be serious, were always serious, & all their different forms of seriousness came to be intermingled, so that a christening reminded of a funeral & a funeral of a wedding: nowadays these things happen in different buildings & the marvelous ‘blent air’ of a church is growing rarer….” The church gives a unity to the entropy of life simply by bringing together the different stages of life into one space, and in doing so, when someone attends one event, they naturally reflect about the other events that took place there. Larkin doesn’t mourn the loss of specific church ritual; what was important for him was the unity the building brought to the stages of life.
Why was this unity important? Because a house of worship provides people with a place where “our compulsions meet,/ Are recognized, and robed as destinies.” There is a primordial urge shared by almost everyone, a hungering for seriousness and meaning, a desire to clothe ourselves in grander destinies rather than thinking of life as simply kicking it around on earth for a bunch of decades before entering eternal nothingness. Even though the speaker sees churches as declining in popularity, they can still offer a space for pondering the basic existential questions. Indeed, the very act of visiting a church has, for our speaker, led him to consider these stages of life and write about it. But what his visit does not do is provide him with a robe for his destiny. In this poem, as well as others, particularly “Faith Healing,” Larkin sees the destinies offered by religion as mere artifice, akin to a piece of clothing you casually put on after the shower.
One of the central crises in Larkin’s poetry is the fact, seemingly obvious to him, that the earth, so wonderful and full of moments of bliss, is ultimately void, a sentiment many of his readers share. The church used to lead us to think otherwise, but with the decline of organized religion, the sense of void is inescapable. This brings us back to those crucial opening lines of the 3rd stanza. A sense of loss permeates the poem. That’s what moved me the first time I read, and it’s why this poem moves me still. I too feel on the personal level the loss Larkin describes for society. I once myself turned to houses of worship and religion to give my life a holism and destiny. I too know the “hunger…to be more serious” and the sense of loss when you realize that the house of God cannot solve your own existential angst. Most importantly though, Larkin also manages to capture the continued paradox for myself that “It pleases me to stand in silence here” and the fact that, bereft of faith, I find it oddly soothing to still come to houses of worship so full of human longing.