“Water”, Philip Larkin

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes.

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing
A furious, devout drench.

And I should raise in the East
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

There’s an interesting discussion here between poets A E Stalling and Daisy Fried. They rather good humouredly accuse themselves of “overthinking” at one stage, which is probably true, but there are some good insights:

Because art has many motivations and requirements which aren’t necessarily thematic. The poet wants that image. Or has some other desire more to do with aesthetics or formal necessities than with thematic content. Larkin may not have been much invested in constructing a religion at all. Poems aren’t necessarily made because we have something to get off our chests, or because we’re after a factual recording of experience. Maybe Larkin wanted to build contrast across the poem. Sousing and fording and drenching—those big-muscle, full-body actions—followed further on by the crystallization of light in water, in a contrastingly tiny vessel.

And maybe he wanted the beautiful inflection of “any-angled” and the way that multitude of angles fits into the tiny vessel. Could he have wanted everybody in the whole world who ever lived (“congregate endlessly”) also to fit in that glass?

Maybe the whole thing adds up to a simultaneously strenuous and weightless vision—and maybe that’s where the authentic experience of religion lies in this poem, or rather, an authentic desire for what religion might be. So that freshness or derivativeness of the ideas in “Water” may not be as important to Larkin as achieving the energies and contrasts in the poem, which seem to me to translate emotionally and (maybe) spiritually in a struggle both towards and away from faith.

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