If you ever ask a poetry nerd, "Hey, what's the deal with Philip Larkin?" you'll probably get the answer, "Well, he's really, really British." What this actually means is that Larkin is well known for his witty and dour approach to serious subjects, which is something you can definitely find in "Church Going." He probably honed this sort of tone after becoming close chums with Kingsley Amis (who wrote in a very similar voice) at fancy-pants Oxford University in the 1940s. Being the good buddy he was, Larkin actually helped Amis finish his first novel, Lucky Jim, which brought Amis a ton of fame and success. But Larkin went on to do pretty well for himself too, you know. In 2003, a Poetry Book Society survey actually named him England's most loved poet of the last 50 years. Not bad for a guy who often felt that no one liked him.
And "Church Going" is one of his best-known, most admired poems. It first appeared in an anthology called New Lines. Larkin and his pals put the collection together. Together, they were known as the Movement, which sounds like some ultra-sinister group of super villains, but is really just a group of poets who wanted to make their work relevant and accessible to everyday readers. (Thanks, guys!)
Apart from his association with the Movement, Larkin is also often referred to as a "Postwar poet," meaning that his writing grapples with many of the big questions that people were forced to ask after living through the death and destruction of World War II. How could civilization be a good thing if it had led to such a terrible event? What higher purpose could people still believe in when the world seemed so horrible? This widespread questioning provided Larkin with a great opportunity to express his atheist beliefs and to ask really tough questions of traditional religion.
He wasn't the first to do this, of course, and definitely won't be the last. But what makes many of Larkin's poems (and especially "Church Going") so enduring is the way he's willing to give religion its fair due, even as he criticizes it. Not to mention: he's a whole lot easier to understand than the generation of poets that came just before him, which included T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Need we say more?
Why Should I Care?
Nowadays, it's hard to turn on your television (especially in America) without hearing about a new or ongoing battle between left-wing secularists and right-wing Christians. These battles are often fought with really bitter language, and it can be tough to see any middle ground between the two sides. Just look at how angry some people get in December when shop clerks refuse to say "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays."
Philip Larkin's poetry, though, takes a measured approach to this conflict and manages to treat it with wit, humor, and respectfulness all at the same time. Different readers can draw different conclusions about religion from a poem like "Church Going," but whether they're atheist or religious, all of them can find something valuable in the questions Larkin asks us.
When you first start reading this poem, you'll probably find it disrespectful toward the Christian church. But if you read closely (and Shmoopers, that's the only way to read), you'll find that Larkin's narrator is actually trying to explain why he can't stop visiting churches. On the one hand, the narrator doesn't believe in God or religion; but on the other hand, he can't really picture a world where these things don't exist (though he tries). Still today, this dilemma between faith and skepticism is something that affects many people. By giving a voice to these questions with beautiful and memorable language, Larkin can help all of us work our way through it.