“Water” — Philip Larkin

“Water” — Philip Larkin

As one whose natural habitat is the English countryside, hydrogen oxide and its various slippery cronies comprise quite a large proportion of my life ( and yes, I’m talking to you, O torrential rain who smugly spoils the most idyllic of country walks). With this in mind –Philip Larkin was English, after all, and thus the weather would probably have formed a great part of his conversation, if not occupied his thoughts to the exclusion of all else– I thought it would be interesting to explore why he considers water and religion to share so many properties: or, to take it further, what the concept of religion has to gain from the properties of water. Deep.*

Fascinating, no? Let’s dive** straight in.

(And no, this is not necessarily what I believe myself, we’re just getting to grips with Philip. Keep up.)

If I were called in

To construct a religion

I should make use of water.

(stanza one)

The Big (or slightly reduced depending on how eager you are) Scoop

The big question precipitated (sorry, couldn’t resist) by the first and second stanzas is why, if religion must “make use of water”, “going to church” involved a solely “dry” experience. Surely a freedom from the waterlogged lexis that saturates (FINE, I’LL STOP) the rest of the poem necessarily creates a barrier between “church” and the “religion” itself?

This is a conflict that is not unintentional. Why is there a “should” in the first and last verses, but a “would” in the ones between? Is this Larkin separating his obligation from his desires? In a sense, this same detachment of what one wants to do and what one ought is merely another facet of the church/religion rift. For those with personal perceptions of wrong and right, with which scriptural precedent and injunction can often not be reconciled, it is hard to conform fully to this particular set of text-prescribed rules.

What one should be governed by –and thus the first and last stanzae are presented as the true ideals which a model religion actually ought to adopt– is a message of eternal love and compassion: or a “glass of water//Where any-angled light//Would congregate endlessly”.

The image of changing one’s clothes for the Sunday service is associated with a lack of “water” because that is not how a truly ‘religious’ –here, simply defined as moral– life should be led; paradoxically, if one only ‘immerses’ oneself when obliged to (i.e. on a Sunday, or at Christmas), this hebdomadal/annual commitment becomes meaningless: “dry”, even. Human beings cannot live without water. And they cannot ‘live’ without spiritual definition, whether that be through conventional religious constructs or one’s personal morality. Larkin shows us the difficulty in combining the two.

Well, that was intense. Something lighter may be called for next time (or maybe the time after next, as what I’m reading at the moment is unsettling to say the least).

* HA. Cue much hilarity and general rolling about on the floor in tears of laughter.

** It doesn’t stop here, I’m afraid.


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