by Philip Larkin
The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in,
Till wind distresses tail and mane,
Then one crops grass, and moves about
– The other seeming to look on –
And stands anonymous again
Yet fifteen years ago, perhaps
Two dozen distances sufficed
To fable them: faint afternoons
Of Cups and Stakes and Handicaps,
Whereby their names were artificed
To inlay faded, classic Junes –
Silks at the start: against the sky
Numbers and parasols: outside,
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass: then the long cry
Hanging unhushed till it subside
To stop-press columns on the street.
Do memories plague their ears like flies?
They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows.
Summer by summer all stole away,
The starting-gates, the crowd and cries –
All but the unmolesting meadows.
Almanacked, their names live; they
Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy,
And not a fieldglass sees them home,
Or curious stop-watch prophesies:
Only the grooms, and the groom’s boy,
With bridles in the evening come.
The technical merits of “At Grass” redeem it from any charges of sentimentality. I gravitate more and more towards poems about aging and loss. It may be less painful to see the representation of retirement and waiting for death anthropomorphized. But one need not read the horses as allegorical figures, I think.
Larkin most likely intended us to see his characters simply as horses and not representations of human anguish. He is typically great with animals; his poem “Myxamatosis” is heartbreakingly chilling. He left money for the RSCPA in his will.
I think that “At Grass” belongs in the brilliant tradition of the “bird poem”–Shelley’s skylark, Yeats’s swans and gold enameled bird, Hardy’s thrush, Keats’s nightingale–they sing to us of what has been and what is and what will be. Although Larkin’s horses do not sing, he imbues them with memory and desire. Larkin’s horses are playing out the scene of the future of everyone who manages not to “die young”.