Rukhaya M.K

A Literary Companion

Poetry Analysis: Philip Larkin’s “At Grass”

The idiomatic phrase “to put at grass” indicates retirement. Therefore the title signifies the concept of retirement and old age. The first stanza:” The eye can hardly pick them out” signals the deterioration of vision in old age. It may also imply the attitude of onlookers to ignore the aged. The title ‘At Grass” again denotes how at old age, Man is relegated to grass root levels, or his behaviour resembles the beginning from grass-root levels as he transforms to a child, yet again.

Though the old horses are provided with shade, the shade is ‘cold’ suggesting the lack of warmth. It takes the ‘wind’ to stimulate them and arouse them Note that it is an agent of nature, and not humans that is instrumental in evoking their senses. One of the horses crops grass fulfilling his basic need; the other looks on as an ‘anonymous’ being. The word ‘anonymous’ may verge on the old-age disease Alzheimer’s; however, it may also mean that being of no (practical ) use now, he functioned as an anonymous being. He was completely ignored.

Just fifteen years ago, these horses were capable of traversing large distances. Their exploits were enough to ‘fable’ them or render them legends. There were Cups and Stakes dedicated to them. Their names were engraved (inlay) in the sands of the times. They rendered the ages golden. This is apparent from the phrase “classic junes” that the summers were made moments to be cherished, as the horses won races against all odds.

They were adorned with ‘silks’ at the start. They had an identity at least based on ranking as connoted by the word ‘numbers’. The word ‘parasol’ refers to the protective environment provided to them. Once upon a time, the trophy horses were responsible for “squadron of cars” and conspicuous “columns’ on the newspaper:

And littered grass : then the long cry
Hanging unhushed till it subside

They were responsible of the long euphoric cries symbolic of their seemingly ubiquitous victory.

The poet looks at the horses and wonders whether memories of the past influence their present. Here, a past of significance shadows the inconspicuous present. The horses as in a response to the poet’s question shake their heads in the negative. Perhaps it was only humans whose ego allowed them to get affected by all of these past glories, and the insignificant present. The ‘summer’ of youth and good times is lost over the years. The eventful years conditioned by wide associations are a thing of the past:” The starting-gates, the crowd and cries –“. What eventually  remains are the ‘unmolesting meadows’, that have remained as the only constant companion to the horses. These meadows are like the horses now, as both of them share a kind of vegetative value in the present.

’Almanacked’ or ‘in records’ the names of the horses do live; but in reality they cease to hold any significance. They gallop now only for sheer joy. The poet presents here the positive sides of retirement that allows them to pursue things for leisure, and not out of sheer obligation. They are not constantly under vigilance or ‘field-glasses’, as they used to be. They are not in the limelight any longer and this offers them adequate privacy. They are on their own. They are no “stop-watch prophesies” to live up to, no expectations to be met.

Only the grooms, and the grooms boy,
With bridles in the evening come.

The speaker perhaps compares this to the predicament of human beings in their old age. Their sole companions towards the end are only the people who attend to them, or groom them.

©Rukhaya MK 2010

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