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Church Going

Church Going


by Philip Larkin

Analysis: Form and Meter

Mostly Iambic Pentameter with Regular Rhyme

Despite the really conversational tone of the speaker, "Church Going" uses very a good deal of iambic pentameter and a regular rhyme scheme. The tone of the speaker is so conversational, in fact, that it can be really easy to miss the poem's formal structure in a first reading. Luckily, Shmoopers, we're here to point all that good stuff out.

A Formal Foot Forward

Let's start with the meter, shall we? If you've read any Shakespeare, you'll recognize the formal rhythm of these lines. There are five repeated pairs of syllables. Each pair begins with an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable. That, friends, is what's known as an iamb. Say a word like "allow" out loud, and you'll know what an iamb sounds like: da-DUM.

Now, there are five such iambs in each line, hence the term iambic pentameter ("penta" means five). So, reading this poem out loud should produce the following rhythm for each line: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. Check out an example to see what we mean:

For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff (5)

The bolded syllables get the stress when read out loud, and you should see this pattern hold pretty consistently throughout the poem. Although, it's not used in every line. For example:

Since someone will forever be surprising (59)

Talk about surprising! We're going along, feeling just fine in the expected iambic pentameter rhythm, and then: boom. That extra syllable jumps out at the end of "surprising." In technical terms, the word "surprising" is an amphibrach, since it joins to unstressed syllables on either side of a stressed syllable. The upshot is this extra metrical bump in the road, which throws off the rhythm.

So, what's up with that? Well, consider what this poem is all about. The speaker is appreciating the role of religion and the purpose it serves. By that token, the formal use of iambic pentameter seems appropriate to that solemn focus of the poem. Still, he's not buying in 100%. He steps outside religion in order to critique it as a kind of superstition. The poem, for its part, is not buying into a formal meter either. There are moments (like this line, but others, too) where the da-DUMs just don't play out like we would expect.

End Rhyme, Most of the Time

The same could be said of the poem's rhyme scheme: ABABCADCD. In other words, in this poem of nine-line stanzas, in each stanza the last word of lines 1, 3, and 6 rhyme (denoted by the A), the last word of lines 2 and 4 rhyme (B), the last words of lines 5 and 8 rhyme (C), and the last words of lines 7 and 9 rhyme (D).

That sounds pretty regular to us, which would be in keeping with the formal iambic pentameter that helps this poem achieve its "serious" treatment of religion. Still, those rhymes aren't perfect ones throughout. Just check out the third stanza for a glimpse of what we mean:

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?

Going back here, we can identify the A sounds in the first, third, and sixth line of the stanza: "do," "too," and… "show"? Now, "do" and "too" are perfect rhymes, but show is what's called in the biz a slant, or near, rhyme. "Show" does have a central O sound like the others, but it's the long O, not the long U of "do" and "too."

So, the question is: "Is Larkin just bad at rhyming?" And our answer is: puh-lease. Again, just as he jumps in and out of a formal meter in this poem, he refuses to commit entirely to a solid, perfect end rhyme throughout. He hesitates at points, which is totally in keeping with the hesitant approach that the speaker takes toward religion.

One last point, and we'll let you go: this refusal to commit entirely to a rigid rhythm and rhyme goes a long way as well toward creating a really conversational tone in the poem. By containing his speaker's casual language in such a sophisticated and orderly structure, Larkin actually mirrors the way that the speaker of this poem physically takes a casual walk around the sophisticated and orderly insides of a church. In this sense, the organized form and meter of the poem would represent the church, and the casual tone would represent the speaker. Pretty neat, huh?

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