Critical analysis of Philip Larkin’s poem “At Grass”

Philip Larkin’s At Grass in unanimously accepted as a popular and successful poem. This is rich in the poet’s masterly serious treatment of a simple theme and masterly technical craftsmanship.

Larkin’s poem here is about some retired race-horses. These are shown now in quietude at grass in a meadow under some cool shade. But some years earlier, about fifteen years before, those very horses won much renown by their excellent feats in horse-racing and turned their names almost into legends. But all that grand past is long over. In the course of the lapse of fifteen years, those horses slipped their famed names into anonymity. So Larkin presents those once giant horses standing at ease, under the cold shade, hardly to be individually identified. Those horses have no remembrance of or regret what is no more their own. They least care for the years that steal away or their bright memories. They only eagerly wait for the coming of their groom and his assistants to take them back, as dusk begins to settle, to their stables.

The poem seems to have a simple theme, as already pointed out, about the retired race-horses. Yet, the exterior simplicity of the poem has some serious sense underneath. The underlying sense has, however, a two-fold manifestation. First, this indicates the inevitable change in the situation of life over time. Second, this also suggests the spirit in which this change, even an ironic and sad one, is to be accepted.

The popularity of the poem depends much on this two-fold sense underneath. The horse as also the man is the sad preys to the unsparing change that occurs in each life. The retired race-horses once enjoyed unstinted admiration and appreciation. But they now stand forgotten, no more individually marked, and now lost in anonymity. That change is inescapable, just as changes in the human lot are inescapable. Honour, power, wealth and beauty – nothing stands long unchanged. These slip away from man, one by one, and leave him all destitute in the long run.

Here comes the second issue. How this change, even a drastic one, is to be taken? Larkin’s retired racehorses take their changes with no reprimand or repugnance. They remain at their ease, unperturbed by the old memory, and eagerly await their day’s end and repose.

Man here is to learn from Larkin’s horses. They are to learn to accept calmly whatever may befall them, good or evil. It is for them to accept and act, and not to question or doubt. Through horses, Larkins gives his well-directed message to his human readers.

The popularity of the poem follows further from Larkin’s masterly poetic technique here. The poem well bears out his mature poetic style that arranges and harmonizes diction, structure, imagery, and versification in the right proportion. His poetic diction is all plain, whereas his imagery is precise but adequate and clear. The postures of the retired horses at grass well mark that

“Then one crops grass, and moves about
-The other seeming to look on-
And stands anonymous again”.

So does the coming of the groom and the groom boys confirm

“Only the groom, and the groom boys,
With bridles in the evening come.”

Larkin’s mature craftsmanship is also evident in the syntactic inversion in the closing line of the normal order ‘come with bridles in the evening.’