Philip Larkin’s Church Going and Ronald Stuart Thomas’s Empty Church – Agnostic vs. Apophatic Space

Przemysław Michalski

Cracow, The Pedagogical University

Abstract:

English literature prides itself on a splendid tradition of religious verse, starting with the medieval Dream of the Rood, through its flourishing in the Baroque (John Donne, George Herbert) to include eminent modernists (T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden) in the 20th century. Unfortunately, the progress of secularisation in Western Europe has led to a considerable decline of religious verse. Despite these inauspicious conditions, however, one may still encounter poets for whom the problems of religion are of primary importance. One of them was the Welsh priest-poet Ronald Stuart Thomas (1913–2000). One of the main issues of his large oeuvre was the problem of God’s apophatic nature and the difficulties the believers must face in their attempts to probe the mysteries of transcendence. This essay sets out to examine just one poem by Thomas which touches upon the above-mentioned questions. Its lyrical “I” is a solitary man in an empty church, who is grappling with the most fundamental questions of faith.

At times, even the least likely writers find they are drawn to religion, and Philip Larkin’s Church Going (1922–1986) is a case in point. Although the poet called himself an agnostic, he did write about religious matters quite frequently. The speaker in this famous poem is an alter ego of the poet himself, while the ambivalence in his views on religion reflects Larkin’s own. It is true that the poet regarded religion as an obsolete relict of the past, but at the same time he recognized its importance both for the individual and for the community. The following analysis of the two poems will briefly present two very different points of view on the question of sacred space.

Keywords: Larkin, Thomas, poetry, church, space, faith

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This article aims to investigate two poems which investigate the question of sacred spaces in a strikingly different manner, and whose overall tenor is also very divergent. What brings them together is a provocatively unorthodox approach to the problem of the place of sacrum in a post-Christian world; they also share another common characteristic in that neither has any proselytising ambitions. The first is a famous, widely anthologised, and frequently discussed poem by Philip Larkin Church Going, which was published in his second collection of verse The Less Deceived (1955).[1] Although the title of the poem seems to suggest otherwise, the poet himself never went to church, and when pressed about his religious views, he would answer with a characteristic wit that he was an agnostic, but an Anglican one.[2] This slightly ironic confession shows both Larkin’s sense of humour and his close attachment to the idea of tradition represented by the Church of England. We know that Larkin went to church at least once; in 1983, with Monica Jones, his partner of many years, he attended an evening service at St Stephen’s Church in Hull. This is how he described the event in a letter to a friend: “I’m far from being a church-taster, so I suppose it was just curiosity. However we were much impressed! Congregation numbered 7, but the service was as splendid as if there were 70. Of course I was pretty lost – no churchgoer he – but I tried to be devout, and really quite enjoyed it.”[3] This visit to church, at least during a service, turned out to be a “one-off”, but it inspired Larkin to write one of his most recognisable poems, a poem which speaks about going to church, which is not in any way bound up with participation in religious rituals, while the speaker assumes the pose of an observer, which is so typical of Larkin’s poetry. Here is the poem in its entirety:

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 in 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 recognisable 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 deaths, 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 recognized, 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.

Although the title of the poem is remarkable in its simplicity, the two words it contains turn out to be unexpectedly pregnant with meaning, especially when, following the tenets of the hermeneutic circle, after having read the whole poem, we return to the title with a better grasp of the poem’s constituent parts. This seemingly straightforward “church going” is also a play on words as it may denote both the action of going to church, but may also imply the disintegration and disappearance of churches, and the twilight of Christianity itself, which, in turn, exhibits modern man’s atrophying ability to assume a religious point of view.

Larkin’s juvenile ambition was to become a novelist and he always deemed fiction as superior to poetry. This unrealised aspiration left its mark on his poems, which hardly ever begin with abstract philosophical notions, but instead are firmly grounded in a concrete, tangible situation.[4] This is also true about the poem under scrutiny here: it is after all a description of one specific building, which has an obvious symbolic relevance of a more general nature, while the speaker himself is a specific individual, and not some incorporeal cogito indulging in vaguely abstract musings on religion in the nebulous space of philosophical discourse. Like Virgil in Dante’s Comedia, the speaker plays a double role: he shows the reader around the interior of a derelict church, but his function is not limited to pure description as it comes with a commentary. One might say that the guide shows us both round the specific building and his own reflections about its significance.

The first stanza implies that the speaker will enter the church only after making sure that he will not be forced to participate in a religious ceremony of any sort. The foremost Polish expert on Larkin, Jerzy Jarniewicz, has pointed out that the speaker does not so much go to church as goes into it.[5] One might say that, like some ecclesiastical flaneur, the speaker goes (or rather cycles) from one church to another, which is evidenced by the phrase “church like any other” in the third stanza. At the same time, the opening part of the poem implies that he is not a particularly religious person, and he does not enter the church in order to take part in service or pray in solitude. Nor is he driven by the purely aesthetic allure of the building as the description makes it abundantly clear that the temple is very average, and the speaker himself is baffled by this overwhelming desire to step inside. At the same time, Larkin writes about “tense, musty, unignorable silence”, i.e. a silence which cannot, and will not, be ignored. One characteristic feature of the poem is an interpenetration of the local and individual with the universal and abstract, which is to say that just like this derelict building is symbolic of the general erosion of religion in Western Europe, its various characteristics need to be interpreted as pointing to something more universal. One is tempted to say that the above-mentioned “unignorable silence” may be understood as the silence filling the universe, which Pascal found so terrifying, but it may equally point to the silence of the world in which God has ceased to speak, or man can no longer discern his voice.

Although it has been suggested that the poet is a species of ecclesiastical tourist, he still feels ill at ease in the sacred interior of the church. Larkin brilliantly indicates his discomfort in the last lines of the first stanza. Vaguely aware that the place should command one’s respect, the “hatless” speaker removes his cycle-clips in an awkward attempt to show reverence. Larkin feels obliged to deflate the potential loftiness of the poem lest the reader should mistake it for an objective acknowledgement of the church’s sacrality. He is at pains to stress his position of an uninvolved spectator, i.e. someone who knows very little about churches and ecclesiastical architecture in general.[6] That is why, on examining the ceiling, he wonders whether it has been “cleaned, or restored”, and adds: “Someone would know: I don’t”. This stanza also features a colloquially off-hand description of the altarpiece: “some brass and stuff / Up at the holy end”, while the following one includes the disrespectful “special shell” and “frowsty barn”, once again accentuating the speaker’s casual indifference. This is also visible in his gestures: he genuflects only to take off the cycle-clips, and when he dips his hand in holy water, he does so following some unclear instinct.


[1] Ph. Larkin, The Less Deceived, Hessle 1955.

[2] cf. J. Jarniewicz, Larkin. Odsłuchiwanie wierszy, Kraków 2006, p. 97.

[3] A. Motion, Philip LarkinA Writer’s Life, London 1993, p. 485.

[4] As William H. Pritchard notes:  “ (…) his poems typically have »plots«, are narratives with beginning, middle, and end (…)”, W.H. Pritchard, „Larkin’s Presence”. Playing it by Ear. Literary Essays and Reviews, Amherst 1994, p. 136.

[5] J. Jarniewicz, Larkin. Odsłuchiwanie wierszy, Kraków 2006, p. 99.

[6] Therry Whalen makes some insightful remarks about this slightly schizophrenic split into a jaded and cynical tourist and a philosophical, serious-minded pilgrim, cf. Therry Whalen in: Philip Larkin & English Poetry, London 1986, pp. 14–16.

[7] Jarniewicz 2006 (fn. 5), p. 104.

[8] It is worth bearing in mind that the poem was written sixty years ago. What used to be only a gloomy prognostication of the future back then has since become flesh in most countries of Western Europe, including England.

[9] Lolette Kuby has perceptibly remarked that the slightly Freudian term “compulsions” is raised to the level of the tragic through Larkin’s using the idea of “destinies”, L. Kuby, An Uncommon Poet for the Common Man, the Hague 1974, pp. 111–112. Andrew Swarbrick points out that this passage is disturbingly ambiguous as it only points to the human desire to confer meaning on the chaos of life without asserting the existence of objective warrants thereof. This is where the true worth of religion lies – in its ability to “robe as destinies” what is only accidental and random; cf. Andrew Swarbrick, Out of Reach. The Poetry of Philip Larkin, London 1995, pp. 66–67.

[10] According to Lolette Kuby, the poem is not pessimistic as Larkin implies that “seriousness” will remain after religion has disappeared. I disagree with this reading as Larkin makes it very clear that in the thoroughly secular world religion – or the church to be precise – remains the only place where such seriousness is possible, cf. Kuby 1974 (fn. 9), p. 109.

[11] R.S. Thomas, Collected Poems1945–1990, London 2000, p. 349.

[12] The same is true about the word “still” which functions both as an adjective and adverb.

[13] Cf. W.V. Davis, Poetry and TheologyWaco 2007, p. 50.

[14] As William McGill has pointed out: “[T]he silence he encounters is both his own failure to find words and the absence of any still small voice from God. Yet answers come, wordlessly perhaps, in sounds, in images, in some ineffable sense, in the persistence of questions that will not go away”, William J. McGill, Poets’ Meeting, Jefferson 2003, p. 74.

[15] There is a similar difference in Gabriel Marcel’s famous distinction between “problem”, which may be solved through application of intellect, and “mystery” which requires the involvement of the whole person in a more existential manner.

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