I think I revisit this particular poem periodically, but it struck me differently this time, this time because while I agree with Larkin, I also profoundly disagree with him; and history disagrees with him as well, on the matter that church buildings are going into disuse. They are not.
by Philip Larkin
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 will 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 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 death, and thoughts of these – for which 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.
I recently made a list of the most influential foreign poems (I don’t do local – too much politics involved!) on yours truly, and I realize that dear old Philip Larkin is incredibly overrepresented. I love his style – he is so pared down, and yet so exact, and not at all pretentious. This is the sort of poetry I hope to write.
I’ve always felt this poem indescribably sad, and that it is. Larkin mourns something without fully knowing why he does, really. His literal conclusion is that, while churches in the form they took are obsolete, their function is still needed – “where all our compulsions meet”. Well, really, who can disagree with that? I’m glad that we don’t stop being human even after “Christendom” goes the way of the dodo.
But religion certainly has not died, and Christianity is as vibrant as ever – just located primarily in different parts of the world. You’d think then that Larkin would at least be right about the church buildings. But God hasn’t even let the church buildings fall into disuse! Yes, there is the occasional church in the UK that is overhauled into apartments (stained glass loft, anyone?) but I mean, the church I go to was a fine old New England church which laid empty for a while, until my young, vibrant, evangelical church moved in. I really appreciate worshipping in an old church building. There is such a wonderful sense of congregation there – not just with the people around me but with the living and the dead, who lie all around. And there is just the sheer beauty of cathedrals which I have visited the world over – the way that art is fused precisely with function – to draw the eye ever ever upwards –
Jacintha’s church rotates with 2 other churches to occupy an old house church in Central Square. I am thinking of doing a video of churches in Cambridge – they are in use, absolutely. And, tangentially, even the ones in China – I read an architecture magazine about this – they are being restored to their original use even as I type, to serve what is daily growing to be the largest population of Christians in the world as well as the history of mankind. But, movingly, with Chinese patterns in the stained
glass. What could be better? Christianity has, unfortunately, often been an excuse for the wiping out of indigenous art and culture. But I think that is now changing, and the Chinese stained glass is just one such example.
Tim Keller said in The Reason for God: Christ makes Africans more fully Africans. He quotes African Scholar Lammin Sanneh “when Africans read the bible in their own languages many began to see in Christ the final solution to their own historic longings and aspirations as Africans…People sensed in their hearts that Jesus did not mock their respect for the sacred nor their clamor for an invincible Savior, and so they beat their sacred drums for him until the stars skipped and danced in the skies. After that dance the stars weren’t little anymore. Christianity helped Africans to become renewed Africans, not re-made Europeans”.
Well, Christ can redeem culture the world over – Christ can redeem African culture; Christ can redeem Chinese culture; Christ can redeem Singaporean culture, Christ can redeem Harvard’s culture, Christ can redeem internet culture, Christ can redeem our culture (whatever it is) – astonishingly, Christ can even redeem Christian culture. So yes – fusty, overhip, multicultural Old England, watch out!
Why the furrowed brow, Larkin? I mean, you even kind of agree with me –
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;
My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,
And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.
– Philip Larkin