The following is an excerpt from my opening lecture for the class, Religions of the World, at New River Community College
“Water” by Philip Larkin
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.
First a word about our author: he is, on the surface, an unusual choice to start any course on religion. Writing in the aftermath of WW II in bombed out Great Britain, Larkin is noted for the absence of God from his work. And yet, here we find a poem about religion.
Studying this very poem, notice that the poet feels “called” as opposed to say, “asked” or “invited.” Many of the founders of the world’s religions have expressed their intent with the same word – a “calling” as in a divine imperative. It is as if they could do no other, even if they had wanted to.
For this poet, the calling is to “construct” a religion. In other words, to put it together, piece-by-piece. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of a religion as analogous to say, a car built on an assembly line or a building that is slowly raised over time. But this is the image Larkin offers and, correspondingly, the primary building block is . . . water.
Now, this too is an unusual word choice: how do you construct anything with water? How do you build something with water? The liquid is incapable of holding its own shape; instead, it takes the form of its container, be it a large hole in the ground or a simple glass. We’ll return to that image shortly . . .
But look at the next stanza: here we finally encounter a religious word with which most of us are familiar: church. Yet, this church is not described as a building but as a journey – a movement called a fording, which is a rather old-fashioned word for crossing a stream or small body of water at a shallow point. This church, then, is not about going to a fixed location and remaining – say for about an hour on Sunday morning – but rather about traveling.
Just as significantly, the travel results in a transformation: the changing of clothes, different clothes. The point is that, by going to this church, you will not leave as the same person. Larkin does not use this word, but the act that symbolizes such a transformation is often called a ritual.
Traveling on to the next stanza, we do find another religious word: liturgy. This term literally means “the work of the people.” A liturgy is not supposed to be performed, recited, or observed by one person, but a group – a community. And the liturgy – what is spoken by the people – reflects their actions.
(A modern liturgical act in colleges across the country is, “Please turn off your cell phones during this class.”)
In terms of the liturgy of this poem, just as the practice of religion or ritual involved getting wet, so the strange yet delightful word, sousing, means getting completely drenched. We would presume that such words about getting wet have a deeper meaning in the construction of this religion. This is not some ordinary bath.
In the final stanza, the poet employs the image of raising a glass in the east. First, note that, rather than a community, the poet is acting once again as an individual, raising the glass by himself. Perhaps he is some kind of leader, priest, or shaman.
Whatever his role, it is clear that the importance of this simple act is symbolically profound. Raising a glass in the east calls to mind the rising of the Sun, often employed as a metaphor for new beginnings, even new life. And the poem ends with the beautiful words: where any-angled light would congregate endlessly. How interesting to note that the actions of those following this religion, whether in ritual or liturgy, are specific to a certain time and a certain place; yet the greater significance suggests eternity and infinity – where any-angled light would congregate endlessly.
The key is that evoking such transcendence invites certain responses. Thinking about any-angled light congregating endlessly creates a sense of awe and wonder, doesn’t it? A water glass is a simple, every day item: yet it is used to invite us to reflect on the extraordinary.