Sep 17, 2010

Empty Churches

I was studying Philip Larkin's fine poem "Church Going" the other day as a consequence of having re-read the opening essay in Alan Shapiro's fine quasi-memoir The Last Happy Occasion, which focuses on this poem as one that has changed Shapiro's life. (As another of the essays in the book vigorously depicts, Shapiro was once a devoted adherent of Winters's.) Studying the poem brought to mind that John Fraser chose the poem for his New Book of Verse, that recent and very important online anthology that seeks to update the Winters Canon, which I have discussed quite a few times on this blog. And re-reading "Church Going" gave rise to the thought that modern classicists stand in much the same condition as those still willing to visit countryside Anglican churches. Just as many walk into empty churches, sense the decline in religious faith in themselves and their friends and family and in our culture, and yet still feel some twinge of attraction to the beliefs symbolized in the architecture and furnishings of the churches, so many seem to read poetry written in so-called traditional forms (or verse) and feel a tug of nostalgia for and perhaps attraction to literary styles and ideas of beauty that have long gone out of fashion. (I must put aside the issue of whether Larkin was right about the general decay of Christian belief in England, which, it seems to me, he was not, at least not entirely. Just last night on NPR -- the coincidence is amazing -- I heard a prominent British sociologist of religion claim that about 25% of the adult population of Britain is still strongly religious. That's decline from olden days, but not emptiness.)

Would many readers of modern literature feel something as Larkin says he did in the empty country church he stopped at if they were to look at the shelf of poetry in my musty basement library, with its dozens of obscure volumes of "formalist" poetry, elegant fiction, and modern classicist or "formalist" criticism of various sorts? It would be a small boon if some did. The closing stanza of "Church Going" holds out the same kind of hope I have, that some will see that there is "serious business" going on in the libraries and offices of us modern classicists. Maybe some will start, someday soon, coming back to "church" with us.

On the side issue of the achievement of Larkin's poem, I have strong doubts that Winters would have thought highly of it. I doubt that he would have considered it great -- or even close to great. But we should not be wholly constrained by his judgments, or our guesses at them. We have our own judgments to make. So what do my readers think? Is "Church Going" a great poem, as John Fraser suggests and Alan Shapiro seems to feel? I have my doubts, as well written as it is at points, but it is certainly worth knowing and appreciating, whether we judge it great or not.

By the by, if you find "Church Going" moving or insightful, you might look into two poems in the Winters Canon, as roughly delineated in Winters's 1968 anthology Quest for Reality, on similar or complementary themes to "Church Going": namely Edgar Bowers's "The Virgin Mary" from the 20th century and Thomas Traherne's "On News" from the 18th century. Both these poems, in my judgment, are far greater than Larkin's poem in just about every aspect. The most prominent difference between the two Quest poems and Larkin's might be Larkin's offhand diffidence, his unwillingness to say anything clearly or deeply serious about the "serious business" he seems to believe once went on or possibly could go on again in the empty country churches he liked to stop at. Compare that diffidence to the strong, clear assertions made in Traherne's and Bowers's poems. I must note, as I have before on this blog, that though John Fraser does include Traherne's great poem in his New Book of Verse, he makes a bad error in dismissing Bowers's from his anthology. "The Virgin Mary" is surely one of the greats.

By the by a second time, I note that Fraser has revised the "Critical Preface" to The New Book of Verse. The revision takes no note of my close study of the founding principles of Fraser's anthology published earlier this year on this blog.

The photo is my own of the courtyard of an Episcopal church in downtown Chicago on a snowy night.

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