Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

Larkin sees in these horses an enviable equilibrium; they finally “stand at ease.” With evening comes a world of darkness, but the horses are in the “unmolesting meadows” where only the wind “distresses” them now. One cannot help but conclude that anonymity is something Larkin treasures; the spectacle of competition and risk—vital affairs of the world though these may be—is merely momentary glitter and show. Most living occurs in the quiet and nameless moments when stability and true caring flourish. The groom and his son care for the horses, whereas the “stop-watch” crowds at “starting gates” are interested in the vagaries of worldly fortune. The racetrack and other such arenas may have their appealing features, but once these are stripped away, a more stable reality emerges. As critic Alan Brownjohn noted in his book Philip Larkin (1975), “Life, for Larkin and, implicitly, for all of us, is something lived mundanely, with a gradually accumulating certainty that its golden prizes are sheer illusion.” Brownjohn also remarks that in Larkin’s poetry “the recognized rewards and goals in life are deceptions.”

Larkin sees something relieving, even joyful in the anonymous decline of the horses. Furthermore, there is something undignified about the past’s “starting-gates, the crowds and cries,” in contrast to the present’s “unmolesting meadows.” Measuring life in terms of performance violates the dignity of the spirit. Perhaps, like racehorses who are valued for three or four years of their prime, human lives are also measured and valued for a brief time but continue for some time after. “At Grass” subtly poses a number of questions. Is public acclaim the only measure of value? Can one live anonymously and be happy? Does acclaim bring happiness? Horses, unlike humans, do not invest in worldly activities; it is all the same to them whether their names are “artificed” or “faded.” That seems to be Larkin’s view as well.

One might wonder why the poem ends with “the groom’s boy” as well as with the groom himself. The poem posits no grand reward of life as “Dusk brims the shadows.” The ease that comes at evening is apparently its own reward. The way that the horses at grass fit into the overall pattern of life is that there will always be another generation of horses. Human continuity and involvement are suggested by the inclusion of the groom and his boy. The fact that Larkin mentions the boy suggests that the groom shares in the horses’ fate and their rising and “faded” glory. A. E. Housman, in his 1896 poem “To an Athlete Dying Young,” celebrated the early death of a recordbreaking athlete because it served to assure his lasting glory. Larkin’s poem, by contrast, suggests that the fading of the glory brings fulfillment of a larger life plan. Everyone must fade and be sheltered in the “cold shade” and will be met at evening by caretakers, be they nurses and orderlies or, ultimately, the undertaker with the “bridles” of his trade.

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