The wooden church (which later burned)
had a padlock on a chain and signs that warned
it would not be forgiving those
who trespassed against it. Well.
There it stood at the far end of our road
in a damp and bosomy luxuriance
of lilacs and feral roses,
shedding those long curls of paint
in the wild oats and chicory,
squinting down at the street hockey
with a certain impotent bitterness,
its eyeslots narrowed under the pointed hat
and the doorway like a mad mouth
in a pilgrim’s head, a prim,
cross face stuck in an eternal yell,
warning the pliant fools
and the obstinate dunderheads away from
the place that isn’t heaven, and
it called out to me one weekend
afternoon, in the heat of July,
in a haze of cicadas,
and urged me to pry off the plywood
over its chancel window and climb in
to see what kind of glory
had been boarded up there.
And I think, for the purpose of this story,
I will say it was a Sunday,
and inside it was
airless and hot and weirdly still,
as quiet, you could say,
as a church,
with the light leaking in sideways, as it will,
through the old, bad wall
and there too, as I recall,
a layer of bird dung on the balustrades
and chunks of plaster in the aisles,
and the usual dust in which the daylight was suspended
and the usual sense that time itself had ended,
and that the time foretold had finally come,
and gone, and left me there
in that ecstasy of aloneness,
to pull a rain-damaged hymnbook
from a wall rack, and breathe
the old-house smell
and make up a short prayer
to my new god
of abandonment and neglect.
An Ecstasy of Aloneness: Philip Larkin’s “Church Going” and Bruce Taylor’s “Left Behind” (No End in Strangeness: Cormorant, 2011).
Philip Larkin famously described religion as “a vast, moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die” and repeatedly figured himself as a skeptical non-believer. Yet in his poem “Church Going,” the poet can’t resist the impulse to stop in and visit an ordinary parish church after hours.
What compels us to visit churches? Having recently returned from Italy, I can report that each town and village has more than one––multitudes, in various states of splendour and decay. We made a point of seeing as many as possible, often to admire the architecture, or to look at paintings and sculpture. But sometimes we just went in to soak up the quiet, maybe light a candle in the lovely but hefty gloom.
In Bruce Taylor’s “Left Behind,” the poet also visits a church––but one that’s abandoned, romantically slumped “in a damp and bosomy luxuriance of lilacs and feral roses.” Though not exactly Larkin’s village church––which is still operative and merely threatened with obsolescence––this vision of dereliction brings its predecessor to mind.
Comparing the two works, there are obvious differences in time and place. Larkin writes of mid-century England, and his church is very much in use (its roof has even been restored) though its authority is slowly dwindling as parishioners become increasingly secularized. Taylor’s church is a New World, clapboard affair whose heyday has been and gone, and we can reasonably guess that his visit takes place half a century later, or thereabouts.
The puritanical character of Taylor’s New World church is wonderfully realized from the start. He describes a watching, threatening presence at the end of the road: “a prim, / cross face stuck in an eternal yell” that’s capped with a pilgrim’s “pointed hat.” In spite of the menacing nature of the place––plus the chains, padlock, and no trespassing signs!––the speaker is inexplicably drawn in, just like Larkin’s protagonist, and wants to see “what kind of glory/ had been boarded up in there.”
In “Church Going” the unwelcoming atmosphere is rendered in subtler terms. As the speaker tours the interior, casually checking things out, he inadvertently disrupts the “tense, musty, unignorable silence”:
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring, large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly….
The browbeating scripture and deriding echoes mock any effort to visit inconspicuously; on the flipside, the lines are also prophetic, hinting at the likelihood of the church’s passing which is cause for the poet’s speculation and reflection. For better or worse, Larkin saw an institution in decline and envisioned a building eventually “let… rent free to rain and sheep” ––a vision of nature softly asserting her supremacy.
Taylor, Larkin’s successor, shows us another ruined church and renders it in sumptuous detail. Cicadas buzz and beckon. Paint is peeling, chunks of plaster have fallen, and the whole structure is enveloped by a jungle of sugary blossom. With its lilacs and roses, it’s the very picture of rampant Victorian nostalgia. I wonder: is this Larkin’s fantasy realized by the next generation? And if so, what exactly was that fantasy? Did he look forward to the demise of a hectoring God, or feel some regret over the whole business, the way one might miss the door-to-door delivery of letters with stamps? Unquestionably, Taylor inherits that ambivalent view when he writes his sequel.
In “Left Behind,” we very much get the sense that we’ve stumbled––alone––into a sublime place, and much of the romance has to do with the fact that we’re completely unattended, that there are no fellow adventurers, that there is no God. The scene is simultaneously apocalyptic and glorious, and though we get “the usual sense that time itself had ended… and time foretold had finally come,” we also get a feeling of playful deflation, for the romance is delivered with a hint of irony, the poet poking fun at both the tyranny of religion and at his own spiritual extravagance.
What I love about this poem is that it does finally celebrate the spiritual. The foray leads to a moment of epiphany, a Dickinsonian slant of “light leaking in sideways” as the poet glories in his aloneness in the ruined church. He may have had Larkin’s visit in mind when he began, but the trespassing is ultimately his own, redolent with undertones of New World individualism and the Quakeresque light within.
What’s more, we’re confused by Taylor’s timeline of events. Is this a vision of a godless future or a charming Wordsworthian recollection? And if it is a memory of a youthful exploit––which is how it feels to me––did it even happen (“for the purpose of this story,/ I will say it was a Sunday”)?
Whether the trespassing is actual or imagined, what we feel is a profound sense of solitude as if it were our own, and the beauty of that solitude in a communal space, one that reverberates with bygone voices. As Larkin concludes, the church is “[a] serious house on serious earth… [i]n whose blent air all our compulsions meet.” And Taylor seems to feel this same weight of history, but also a relief that he stands alone and makes his “short prayer” to a “new god/ of abandonment and neglect,” an invocation which is––of course––a poem.
Jenny Haysom recently released a chapbook, Blinding Afternoons, with Anstruther Press, and has a first collection of poems forthcoming with Palimpsest Press. She lives with her family in Ottawa.