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?
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.
Follow the link below to check out some pearls of wisdom from our man, Philip Larkin.
The Official Website
Do you really, really love Larkin? Then why not join the Philip Larkin Society, and get access to its illustrated newsletter, About Larkin?
The Official BBC Page
Like the title says, here's Larkin's official page on the British Broadcast Corporation's website.
Blogger's Look at "Church Going"
Here's a blogger who has a solid handle on Philip Larkin.
The BBC's "Down Cemetery Road" with Philip Larkin
Here's Part 1 of an amazing three-part video, featuring readings from Larkin's poetry and a great sit-down with John Betjeman. Around the 5:30 minute mark of Part 2, you actually have a rare video of Larkin walking around a church and acting out the scenes of "Church Going."
The Lost Tapes
Check out this news story about the discovery of some lost tapes of Larkin reading.
An Incredible Reading of "Church Going"
Here, you get Larkin himself reading his poem, "Church Going." Give it a listen and you might realize things about the poem that just reading it might not have told you.
Larkin Reads "Aubade"
In the clip, you can hear Larkin reading his super-famous, super-creepy poem about death. Some of the stuff he says about religion might give you new insights into "Church Going."
Here's the look of a man who's got something important to write.
Cool Sketch of Larkin
Someone did a really great job of capturing the spooky side of Larkin's face.
Yikes—people always talk about how homely Larkin was, but he wasn't a bad-looking kid.
Martin Amis on Philip Larkin's Romantic Life
Here's a really quirky and interesting article, in which famous author Martin Amis (son of Larkin's buddy, Kingsley Amis), reflects on the failures of Larkin's love life in a way that only those dour Brits can do.
Amis and Larkin: Hate in a Cold Climate
Follow this link to a super-informative article about the often-rocky relationship between Philip Larkin and famous author Kingsley Amis.
Philip Larkin Interview in The Paris Review
Once again, The Paris Review gives us a fantastic, in-depth look at a great poet through the poet's own words.
Philip Larkin, the Book
If you can get yourself a copy, this book contains some great insights on Larkin's poetry by many different critics and writers, including the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
Poetry that Builds Bridges
In this book, Sisir Kumar Chatterjee aggressively argues against people who find Larkin depressing and pessimistic, suggesting that Larkin's poetry is actually full of hope and love. It's a cup-half-full take on Larkin.