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Faith Healing

Philip Larkin

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Added by: anonymous
This poem describes watching the women who queue to be blessed by an American faith healer. The encounter each woman has with the healer is very brief – twenty seconds, in which he asks her to tell him ‘what’s wrong’ and then asks God to cure the troubled part: ‘this eye, that knee’. The women are deeply affected by this experience. Larkin wonders what motivates people to need faith healing. He concludes that within everyone is a sense of the life they could have lived if they had loved more, or, particularly, if they had been loved more. Nothing cures this ache, but the healing experience relieves by loosening suppressed emotions.

Time and voice: The poem is written in the present tense – giving it immediacy. Larkin is a detached, third person observer of the experience. We share his analytical view of the emotional event he witnesses. This gives authority to his general conclusions in the final stanza ‘in everyone there sleeps / A sense of life lived according to love’.

The poem is divide into three stanzas of ten lines, with five stresses each, and a regular but complex rhyming pattern: ABCABDABCABD. This pattern mirrors the regular succession of women who file up to meet the faith healer. The three stanzas divide the poem’s action: in the first the women file forward; in the second they disperse; in the third Larkin takes over with his exclamation ‘What’s wrong!’ and analysis. Notice how the phrase ‘then, exiled’ causes an abrupt break at the end of the first stanza. This makes us feel the women’s loneliness as they move away from the comfort of the faith healer’s grasp. The lines are not end-stopped, but run on into each other – this helps to create a sense of movement and progression.

Language and Imagery: One important image is of rain/tears. Do you see the ‘warm spring rain of loving care’ in line 5? This is a metaphor: rain releases the fruitfulness of the soil that has been hardened by winter’s frost; similarly, the healer’s loving care releases the women’s pent-up feelings. This links to the ‘tears’ and ‘eyes squeezing grief’ in stanza 2, and ‘thawing, the rigid landscape weeps’ in stanza 3. Another image is of being a child. The faith healer’s repeated words ‘now, dear child’ are emphasised by italics, in stanzas 1 and 3. His silver hair and blessing make the healer himself seem like God, and emphasise his fatherly role. In stanza 2 Larkin imagines that ‘a kind of dumb, idiot child’ is reawakened in the women by their experience – they cry and lose control of speech like young children. Look at the phrase ‘tongues blort’ in line 19. A made-up word, near to ‘blurt’, its sound suggests their lack of rationality, an excited confusion echoed by ‘jam’, ‘crowd’ and ‘rejoice’. Larkin uses the vocabulary of Christianity (which refers to worshippers as ‘children’ and ‘sheep’) to suggest that the women’s need for religious blessing arises from a common craving for human, especially parental, love. The poem’s title could therefore be a play on words – perhaps it is simply the act of trust in others, rather than religion, which heals us.

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