‘At Grass‘ by Philip Larkin is a lyric poem that is divided into five, six-line stanzas, also known as sextets. The lines are structured with a constant rhyme scheme. It follows the pattern of abcabc. The poet chose this particular pattern in order to reference the regularity of life, particularly that of the horses which are the main characters of ‘At Grass.’
The same can be said about the metrical pattern. It is also consistent in that each line contains four sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. This pattern is known as iambic tetrameter.
It is important to note the meaning behind the title, ‘At Grass,’ before beginning the poem. This phrase is generally used to refer to something, or someone, being retired or put to the side. In this case, it is quite literal as the racehorses have been “put to grass” and now spend their days grazing. One should begin this piece with an understanding that things were not always as they are now.
Summary of At Grass
The poem begins with the speaker looking out over a field and noting how “they” are almost impossible to see at first. The ambiguity of “they” match with the speaker’s trouble in actually seeing them. The creatures’ references are of course the two racehorses which feature as the main characters of the poem. When at one point they were the center of everyone’s attention, now they are only seen by the speaker. And even then, he sometimes finds it hard to spot them.
He thinks about their past lives at the track and wonders if the memories of fame and acclaim haunt the horses. This line of thinking is quickly dismissed when he takes the time to see how at peace the horses truly are. They move about the pasture quietly, and sometimes not at all. These movements are interpreted by Larkin’s speaker to be those of joy. The horses no longer work for the crowd, nor are they overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of the track.
He comes to the conclusion that the two once-famous horses are much happier to have escaped their names. Whatever achievements may have been their’s have been “almanacked” and packed away for others to worry about.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of At Grass
The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in,
– The other seeming to look on –
And stands anonymous again
This piece begins in the middle of a pastoral scene. The speaker is looking out into a pasture and noting how the creatures there are hard to see. In the first two lines it is undetermined what exactly it is the speaker is looking at, but with the reference to “tail and main,” two features generally attributed to horses, it becomes clear.
It is not until the wind blows around their hair that they become truly noticeable. The horses make a number of small movements. They are at peace in the grass, and have no real desire to do anything else other than “crop…grass” and “move…about.” This is all they really seem to do at this point, move from one spot to another before standing “anonymous again.”
Yet fifteen years ago, perhaps
Two dozen distances sufficed
Whereby their names were artificed
To inlay faded, classic Junes –
The speaker goes on to explain how these horses are not all that they seem to be now. In the past, “fifteen year ago” precisely, they were racehorses. Their lives were much different then and their named have become fabled. The speaker vaguely outlines what the races were like, with “Cups and Stakes and Handicaps.” Eventually, the names of these particular horses “were articifced / To inlay faded.” They were well known for period of time, and then mostly forgotten.
Silks at the start : against the sky
Numbers and parasols : outside,
Hanging unhushed till it subside
To stop-press columns on the street.
The third stanza is made up of a number of other bursts of memory. These are the things the speaker believes the horses might remember about the past. There was the sky, the start of the race, and all the people looking on. The speaker takes note of the “parasols” carried by women and the huge numbers of “empty cars” outside the racetrack. Everyone watched when these horses competed.
He concludes this stanza with the image of the crowd cheering on the race. The sound hung over the track “unhushed” until the race was over.
Do memories plague their ears like flies?
They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows.
All but the unmolesting meadows.
Almanacked, their names live; they
In the fourth stanza, the speaker wonders over what the horses actually remember of the past and what impact it has on their lives nowadays. At first, he thinks that perhaps they are “plague[d]” by the memories as a human would be. Maybe the thoughts of past fame flit around the horses’ minds like flies around their ears— unceasing and eventually annoying.
The speaker quickly changes his mind about this line of thought. He does not actually believe the horses are bothered by the lives they used to live. They are able to shake off the past and live in the present. They are much more concerned with the natural world around them.
“Summer by summer” has gone by and “stolen away” the sounds of the crowds cheering. The only thing that’s left is what they have now, the “unmolesting meadows.” Their names have been “Almanacked,” or filed away and allowed to live on far from the horses themselves.
Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
With bridles in the evening come.
The speaker emphasizes this fact by stating that the horses have managed to “slip…their names.” They’ve shrugged off their fame and are now able to “stand at ease” away from the crowds. He presents this as being an entirely good change in their circumstances and interprets all their actions in support of this particular conclusion.
He sees them move and it “must be” with “joy.” They have much greater freedom now than they’ve ever known before. There are no “stop-watch prophesies” or rules and obligations. Now the only people they interact with are the “grooms, and the grooms boy.” They come in the evening with “bridles” to guide the horses back to the barn for the night. Although the horses are not completely free, the speaker clearly sees the transition from the racetrack to the pasture as a marked improvement.