Sunday, February 15, 2015

`It Is an Internal Assent'

Wallis Wilde-Melozzi writes in The Other Side of the Tiber (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013): 

“I sit in churches in Italy. It is an internal assent. Only recently have I realized that it is quite an act of tolerance on the part of the church that my presence is not questioned once I linger. As a young person who could sit for an hour in silence on a hard bench in a Quaker Meeting, I recognize in dark Italian churches the benches are equally hard. The silence I seek is more or less the same.” 

Like Wilde-Melozzi, an American writer who has lived in Italy for more than thirty years, I have often found church sanctuaries the most welcoming of public or semi-public spaces. As a newspaper reporter, I wrote about dozens of hamlets in upstate New York, most not found on maps or formally recognized by the U.S. Postal Service. I always included the church in my rounds. Often they were unlocked or the pastor or caretaker lived nearby and would permit me to enter. Few places are emptier than small rural churches on a weekday. Though not among the faithful, I never felt like a trespasser. I made a point of looking at the Bible on the pulpit to check where the pages were open. My unofficial survey suggests that Isaiah was the most popular of scriptural texts, at least in the rural portions of the greater Capital Region. Wilde-Melozzi continues: 

“Now and then, I don’t have quite the detachment in Italian churches that Philip Larkin conveys in his poem `Church Going.’ I can’t quite claim his ironic read of `the holy end’ or his scouring the church for historical treasure, but I recognize his detachment and, at the same time, his being drawn to a space that has been held open for contemplation: `A serious house . . . Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in, / If only that so many dead lie round.’” 

Larkin gets it exactly right. Though customarily sparing with adjectives, he chooses them well: “a tense, musty, unignorable silence.” As always, his speaker’s understanding is nuanced. Not devout, neither is he the village atheist, the vulgar sort of unbeliever. This is, after all, “a serious house.” We often do meaningful things unknowingly, perhaps even against our more public or fashionable sense of judgment. The world is crowded with unseen forces, attractions and repulsions, and most of us on most days choose not to pay them much attention. Larkin does. Archie Burnett, editor of The Complete Poems, quotes an interview Larkin made in 1981, almost thirty after he wrote “Church Going”: 

“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 refrigerators or split-level houses for architects.” 

Pinning down Larkin, assigning him a thesis, is risky. He started as a novelist and his poems suggest at least as much drama and narrative richness as the best fiction. A non-believer who understands those with faith, who takes no offense at even the fiercest devotion, is a rare character. Most of us are more comfortable assuming those whose beliefs vary so radically from our own are probably a little dim and to be pitied, or somehow malignant and probably to be watched very carefully. “Church Going” concludes:
“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.”

[Go here to hear Larkin read “Church Going.”]


Subbuteo said...

By the by - whenever I post a comment on your blog it always asks me to reassure you that "I'm not a robot". Please be assured that in no way could I be construed as such and would be considerably nettled to be considered so.

Subbuteo said...

Thank you Mr Kurp for this. I marvel at your rate of output. Fascinating to listen to Larkin's reading and to observe how conversational his reading is. He obeys the sense scrupulously, never emphasising the rhyme to the extent that one could be unaware of it at first. As he proceeds its effect gathers. I love "accoutred, frowsty barn". Finally, the poem dramatises the tension between our need for significance and the vacuum of formalised significance that now prevails. As much as any other Larkin was disabled by this. The poem is almost a cry for help. For him all that is left of past consolations is the presence of death.