Philip Larkin is one of those rare poets I have always thought of as a friend. Poets, as a rule, are a self-involved bunch, even more so than the rest of us, but Larkin is someone whose judgment I trust, whose sense of humor is reliable, whose taste is usually worth respecting or at least learning from, and whose contempt for bullshit of all varieties is infallible. I can’t say the same of most other poets, even those whose work is inarguably greater – Auden, for instance, or Yeats. I envy Kingsley Amis his long friendship with Larkin. When Amis, the poet-turned-novelist, and Larkin, the novelist-turned-poet, shared a room, the air must have danced with wit and linguistic energy. What has thus far been published of their correspondence confirms Amis’ statement that he and Larkin were “savagely uninterested in the same things” – and wonderfully funny at the same time.
In the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal, on Page P18, David Yezzi, poet and executive editor of The New Criterion, has published a sensitive, thoughtful reading of Larkin’s “Church Going,” which he calls “one of the greatest poems of the 20th century.” Yezzi’s assessment is surprising and just. Along with “Aubade,” I have always judged it Larkin’s finest poem. Considering the posthumous assault on Larkin after the publication of his letters and Andrew Motion’s biography – on exclusively political, not literary grounds – Yezzi’s conclusion is also courageous.
The poem, in Yezzi’s words, “begins in irony and ends with, if not a statement of faith, then at least a genuine reverence for life’s most serious questions: `marriage, and birth/And death. And thoughts of these.’” Here is “Church Going”:
“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.”
When people asked Larkin about his faith or lack of it, his standard reply was, “I’m an agnostic, I suppose, but an Anglican agnostic, of course.” Motion reports that Larkin felt some attraction to Roman Catholicism late in life (he died in 1985), though the attraction was never acted upon. The poem is a masterpiece of tone, as nuanced and subtly shifting as late Henry James. The speaker hates neither faith nor those who believe, like a vulgarly militant atheist, nor can he permit himself to relax into belief. He reminds me of what Hawthorne wrote of his friend Melville in 1856:
“He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.”
If this sounds humorless – of the poem’s speaker, of Larkin, of Melville – consider what Christopher Ricks observed of the author of “Church Going”:
“He has for some of us that rare comic force which is a matter of the whole idea of him and his ways and his tones, so that just to imagine his cadences is involuntarily to smile to yourself.”