At Grass

Philip Larkin

‘At Grass’ by Philip Larkin is a poem about fame and happiness. It focuses on racehorses and how they found new homes away from their previous lives.


Philip Larkin

Nationality: English

Philip Larkin was an English poet and novelist born in 1922.

He is best known for his poetry collection The Whitsun Weddings, published in 1964.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: A peaceful life is a better one.

Themes: Journey, Nature

Speaker: Someone observing horses

Emotions Evoked: Compassion, Contentment

Poetic Form: Sestet

Time Period: 20th Century

At Grass‘ by Philip Larkin speaks on the fate of two famous racehorses who have long since left the track and found a new home in a pasture.

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 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 centre 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 theirs have been “almanacked” and packed away for others to worry about.

You can read the full poem here.

Structure and Poetic Techniques in At Grass

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 ABC ABC. The poet chose this particular pattern 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 is 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.

Analysis of At Grass

Stanza One

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 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.”

Stanza Two

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.

Stanza Three

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.

Stanza Four

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 far from the horses themselves.

Stanza Five

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.

Read the first analysis of 'At Grass'

We enjoyed ‘At Grass’ by Philip Larkin so much we analysed the poem twice.
Read the first analysis

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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