At Grass by Philip Larkin (pg 30). At Grass by Philip Larkin (pg 30). At Grass.
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At Grass by Philip Larkin (pg 30)
This is a poem about the way growing old affects our lives. Philip Larkin uses ex-racehorses to show this. We begin with a peaceful scene where horses graze in a field before a much more vibrant, alive series of flashbacks which portrays the horses in their prime – as winning racehorses. I see the poem as a sad vision of old age. The horses represent people too; as we grow old we become lonelier and more ‘anonymous’ – the glories of our past are forgotten about.
the title is a phrase which means to have retired – when you give up work in old age you are said to be ‘at grass’
the horses – it is a struggle to see them until the wind moves their tails or manes – they are alone and anonymous
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
‘distresses’ – meaning moves, upsets – a harsh verb which may suggest discomfort
‘yet’ – drive word - changes mood and setting. Larkin takes us back to the horses’ glory days.
‘perhaps’ – the narrator is unsure of when exactly; the inclusion of this word shows us the horses’ racing days have been lost in memory
Yet fifteen years ago, perhapsTwo dozen distances sufficed To fable them : faint afternoons Of Cups and Stakes and Handicaps, Whereby their names were artificed To inlay faded, classic Junes -
‘sufficed’ – means were sufficient, enough. The horses may have only needed to run two dozen races to make them famous.
list of three different types of horse racing competitions
‘artificed to inlay faded’ – artificed means printed, inlay meaning the silks on the horses’ backs. Their names were printed on the silks they wore on their backs when racing.
‘fable’ – to recognise them as important
‘classic Junes’ – June is the month when the big races take place (the derby, Ascot etc.)
sibilance – ‘s’ sound could represent the buzz of the crowds before a race
‘silks’ – the jockeys wear silks during a race
‘numbers’ – the betting that takes place in the stands
‘parasols’ – the big umbrellas shielding spectators from the sun
Silks at the start : against the skyNumbers 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.
‘squadrons’ – term associated with the army – metaphor suggests everything is well organised and large in number
This stanza and the one before it shows us what a typical horse race meeting is like. It is written with a really fast-pace without stops (only colons and commas are used for brief pauses). It contrasts with the slow peaceful setting at the start.
the screams and cheering of the crowd hangs in the air ‘unhushed’ during the race. It then fades (subsides) and the results are printed in the ‘stop-press’ columns in newspapers
simile – the memories of the past are imagine to get in the way like flies do
personification – the horses answer the question the poet asks – it is as if they are listening to him. The horses are no longer aware of their past (unlike humans)
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
‘all stole away’ – meaning their memories are all tucked out of mind
‘unmolesting meadows’ – all that remains for the horses is the safe meadows in which they graze. The adjective ‘unmolesting’ is interesting – it maybe implies that they were harmed in the past and can now be content?
‘almanacked’ – recorded in a book; their names live on in the records
‘stand at ease’ – another military term – the horses can now relax
their racing names have been ‘slipped’ (lost or shaken off) they are anonymous again
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.
‘fieldglass’ – the horses would have been viewed through these binoculars during the race
‘curious stop-watch prophesies’ – the predictions made by bookmakers before the race – all of this must have seemed bizarre (curious) for the horses
melancholy ending – the horses are still looked after but now‘only’ the stable hands look after them
The closest match is probably ‘Old Man, Old Man’ as both poems focus on how being in the ‘prime of life’ brings satisfaction and old age changes things. ‘Warning’ and ‘Mirror’ are also suitable comparisons. If you take nature as a theme then some of the Heaney poems would work but this is a much more difficult comparison to make.
This poem can be interpreted in two different ways. I see it as quite sad because the horses lose their fame and end up being alone and anonymous. But you could equally take the opposite view and say the horses are now truly at rest in their natural environment and are content and happy without all the fuss being made of them. Whichever view you have it would be good to mention both opinions in an exam.
As long as you understand some of the more difficult words and racing terms I would suggest this is a good poem to write about in an exam.