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A Comparison of Church Going by Philip Larkin and Christmas by John Betjeman

John Betjeman and Philip Larkin were contemporaries, though Larkin was an atheist and John Betjeman an Anglican.

Compare and contrast Church Going, by Larkin and Christmas by Betjeman.

Although both contemporary poets Philip Larkin and John Betjeman differ in their religious beliefs, this is reflected in the two poems, Church Going and Christmas. In their respective works both poets portray their own religious beliefs to some extent through the chosen subject matters of their works. Larkin’s poem literally describes the speaker entering a church with no specific reason for doing so, and yet it is not the first time that he has done so suggesting that he feels an underlying obligation towards them. At the same time as explaining this scenario in his poem, Larkin also uses this back drop as an opportunity to convey a deeper meaning in the words of his poem. Betjeman’s poem Christmas describes in a literal sense the poet’s interpretation of what Christmas means to him and what occurs at Christmas. But, similarly to Larkin Betjeman uses his poem to convey a message to the reader through the deeper meaning of his poem. Both poems contain biblical imagery and encompass the religious beliefs of their authors. The poems are very much alike in the fact that doubt is expressed by both authors as to whether the religion, or in Larkin’s case the lack of religion, by which they have chosen to live out their lives is correct or not.

Within the first two lines of Larkin’s poem we are shown that the speaker is nervous and uncomfortable with the idea of entering a church, this is shown where he writes, “Once I am sure there’s nothing going on/ I step inside”. Larkins lexical choice of the word “thud” soon after this confession is a further clue to the lack of religious fervor that the individual has. He does not close the door reverently as a way of preserving the peace that exists with the walls of the church but let’s “the door thud shut” betraying his displacement. The additional onomatopoeia of the word “thud” places an increased emphasis on the speaker’s lack of belonging as well as creating a auditory sense of the poem for the reader, the leaden lifeless sound created by the word also portrays the lack of emotion felt by the speaker as he enters the church. The speaker’s casual informal tone when he refers to the church as just “Another Church” also conveys a sense of disrespect for his surroundings as well as conveying to the reader that it is not the first time that he has felt compelled to enter a church. The speaker shows that he believes all churches to lack individuality through his use of a list of what they all contain inside, “matting, seats, and stone,/And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut for Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff”. His reference to the flowers as sprawlings rather than objects which have been placed to adorn their surroundings out of a devotion and respect for the purpose of the building again betrays how the speaker is taking what he sees at face value without a respect for the institution of the Church as a whole. This sense of irreverence is again portrayed through his description of the contents of the church as “stuff” as well as his reference to the flowers as “brownish” which seems to propose a sense of decay. This reference could be symbolic of Larkin’s recognition or opinion that religion is dying out, an opinion that is backed up by his line later in the poem, “When churches fall out of use” which shows that he beliefs that religion will disappear. On the other hand Larkin admits that religion does have a place in society through his choice of the phrase, “God knows how long” this shows that although he does not believe in God the nature of religion is so engrained within society, it has such a degree of longevity, that he cannot help but use a reference to it in his everyday speech.

In Contrast Betjeman’s poem Christmas presents a much more positive view of religion and churches. His description of stain glass windows as casting a “sheen” over the outside world presents the image of the church as giving off light or as being a light within the darkness. This is a biblical visual image which encourages and suggests a positive view of religion as light is often used symbolically to mean goodness. Betjeman makes a reference to objects from nature to remind the reader of God’s creation and also to bring a festive context into his poem as the objects he lists such as “holly” and “yew” are traditionally associated with Christmas. They also act as a visual imagery for the reader. Betjeman follows this reference with a list of objects associated with a church, “The altar, font and arch and pew” this acts as a reminder of the religious element of Christmas, revealing the significance of religion as part of poet’s experience of Christmas. He then goes on to describe the commercial aspect of Christmas. His use of alliteration on the phrase “Provincial public houses” places an emphasis on the global commercial aspect of Christmas, pubs everywhere “blaze”. His description of the London shops further conveys a sense of commercialism and the busy nature of the city at Christmas time with its “hurrying clerks”. A greater emphasis is placed on the capitalist nature of Christmas through mention of the figurehead of capitalism the “Dorchester Hotel” where the “shining ones” are allowed to “dwell” this image contrasts with the image of a baby in an “ox’s stall” presented later in the poem suggesting the view that capitalism and commercialism have been allowed to overshadow what the poet sees as the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of Jesus.

Both poets express a feeling of doubt within their works. This is shown in Christmas where Betjeman uses the rhetorical question, “And is it true?” This use of rhetorical question coupled with the repetition of the question both in the same stanza and the stanza that follows acts as an emphasis on the fact that no one can be completely sure whether or not believing in the story of the nativity and the faith system that accompanies it is the right and true thing to do. Similarly doubt is expressed by Larkin in his poem Church Going; however his doubt is of a different kind he wonders, “What remains when disbelief has gone?” Larkin’s lexical choice here of the word “disbelief” is used to refer to those people who choose to pass off religion as stupid and a waste of time, therefore is this rhetorical question posed by the speaker Larkin makes a direct confession that he does believe in the power of religion, this thought is reiterated earlier in the poem where he writes, “Power of some sort or other will go onn” revealing that in the speaker’s eye’s religion currently occupies a position of power within society. The fact that Larkin believes in the power of religion combined with his unexplainable attraction to enter a Church creates a sense of doubt within the poem as to whether or not believing in something is a good or a bad thing.

Both poems also have a regular form and metre. In his poem Church Going Larkin uses quite a lot of iambic pentameter throughout the poem despite still maintain an informal conversational tone. Larkin also has a regular rhyme structure of ABABCADCD throughout his poem. Larkin’s use of a regular form and metre within his poem reflects how he is treating his subject matter of religion with the degree of seriousness that it requires. However there are points within the poem where the regular rhyme and rhythm used by Larkin breaks down, this reluctance to commit fully to a regular rhyme and rhythm reflects the same hesitancy the speaker feels towards religion itself mirroring the message of the poem. In the same way the content of the poem is mirrored by the rhyme and rhythm as the casual tone of the speaker is contained within the regular structure just as the speaker is taking a casual stroll around the order and structured layout of the inside of the church. Betjeman also uses a regular form and metre in his poem Christmas. His poem mostly follows the rhyming structure of ABABCC but in the same way as Larkin’s poem this rhyme does not fit the poem in its entirety. Betjeman’s unwillingness to commit fully to this metre implies a sense of the doubt that he expresses within his poem, “is it true?” despite his faith there is an element of doubt in his mind as to whether or not what he believes in is true. But his regular structure does reflect his steadfast faith in his religion; it is regular throughout the poem.

In conclusion both poems reflect a deeper religious meaning layered underneath the different events that they document. The differing religious views of their respective authors is shown through the messages of their poems, Betjeman worries that the true meaning of Christmas as being the birth of Christ is being lost among the commercialism that now surrounds the time of year, it is buried beneath all of the “tissued fripperies”. While on the other hand Larkin concludes at the end of his poem that he finds churches impressive as they provide a serious location for serious questions, it is for this reason that he thinks people continue to go to Churches, as humanity will never stop asking serious questions, he has a respect for religion despite his own atheist beliefs.

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