Critics like Anthony Thwaite put forward the view that “Church-Going” is a “veiled plea in support of Christianity.” This, however, is not true. Philip Larkin in his interview “Four Conversations” substantiates it when he declares: “I don’t bother about that kind of thing”, and “I am deliberately ignorant of it.”Andrew Motion suggests that the speaker in “Church-Going” begins the poem by banishing any signs of holy dread. The speaker comes across as a blasé person introducing religion with absolute disregard and sheer callousness. He reduces the holy institution of the church to a list of material entities-matting, slats, stone, little books, withered flowers, ,small neat organ. etc. One wonders whether it is to foreground his views as a skeptic or, to reduce religion to mere aesthetics.
The “large-scale verses” seem to glare at him and frighten him into believing them. He categorically puts the reciting to an end asserting:” Here endeth.” For him this is not only the end of that particular chapter, but also the end of the chapter of Christianity. It undoubtedly refers to the social context of the poem. The period was marked by the deterioration of faith. The year after 1945, saw a decline in the religious attendance at churches. The echo comes back to him in sniggering terms. This echo is representative of the masses of the times. In an act of brazenness, he donates illegal tender in the form of Irish six pence. It is just “another church’ for the agnostic. Larkin opines that at the end of each visit, he felt “much at loss”. He contemplates on the nature of the church as an institution-was it limited to its spatial arrangement/what will be its identity reduced to when people stop going to churches, when there are no more prayers. “A few cathedrals chronically on show.” It will only be a thing of the past then.
Will it be restricted to a historical monument? The “parchment, plate and pyx” would serve as a source of aesthetic beauty to some, and as an archaeological curiosity to others. In such a view, the meaning of the church resides only in the remote historical past for the poet. Janice Rossen states that Larkin quite often makes a sharp distinction between the nature outside and man’s enclosure within a building. Here, the destructive forces of Nature merge with the enclosure of the church. Equipped with all the paraphernalia befitting a museum, it would serve the same function. Whereas the rest of the churches would have rain and sheep as their tenants, inhabiting it rent-free.
After the remaining people will have turned atheists, the church would then serve as the last resort for superstitious women, desperately seeking cure for their children’s ailments. They would hope to treat even terminal ones like cancer. Some of them would incorrigibly hope to see their dead relatives meandering on the premises of the church. With the passage of time, even superstitious beliefs would subside and what would only remain would be mere vegetation on show. The church would then reach such a stage where it would not even communicate frivolity to the onlookers. It would be a material entity devoid of identity.
The last person to establish any sort of communication with the church, would be the one ,to breath any kind of meaning into it; and perhaps this would be the durable meaning imparted to the church which is gradually deteriorating. This function, the speaker says, would be performed by the ‘churchyard,’ which attributes to the church the idea of a place to grow wise in. Because the church yard has numerous dead bodies buried in its premises; and it is only the knowledge of death and the inevitability of life that makes people wise to an extent. A similar idea is echoed in Larkin’s “Ambulances”.
Stephan Reagen affirms that the punning title demonstrates both the disintegration of the church or the erosion of its values; and also the act of going to the church. Andrew Motion, on the other hand, suggests that the title signifies the union of the important stages of human life-birth, marriage and death-that going to the church represents. Although for Larkin the agnostic and misogynist, perhaps the first analysis suits better.
©Rukhaya MK 2010
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