The Poem

This lyric poem, written in formal verse, presents a meditation that is triggered by a pastoral scene of two horses “at grass.” The speaker first observes the horses as an unspecified “them” whose identity must be pieced together, since they are hardly noticeable against the landscape of “cold shade” in which they are comfortably at grass. They “shelter” in it and are noticeable only when the wind brushes across their tails and manes. They are not outstanding but anonymous, simple horses pasturing peacefully.

So far the speaker has only pointed out what an uninformed passerby might notice, but he knows something more about these horses: They have had their moments of fame. The reader learns that fifteen years ago they were at the center of attention at the races, surrounded by excited concern, trophies, crowds, and the colors of the “silk” worn by the jockeys. There was much at stake, as evidenced by “numbers,” “distances,” and “stop-press columns on the street.”

This recollection leads the speaker to wonder (in a phrase with echoes from William Shakespeare), “Do memories plague their ears like flies?” That is, do memories of busier, more glorious and exciting days nag at them and stir regret? The speaker recognizes in the simple shaking of the horses’ heads that regret and nostalgia are human experiences and that, on the contrary, the horses seem content to be where they are. The fact that their glory...

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Forms and Devices

A scene that at first seems insignificant yields a story and an understanding of these simple horses and, by extension, given the poet’s musings, of human life. The speaker reconstructs the scene of the pasturing horses and the sport of horseracing—a competitive, lucrative undertaking—in a way that can be easily understood as a metaphor for human activity. What starts off as a seemingly simple descriptive lyric raises issues that make the reader reflect more deeply.

Using sport as a metaphor for life is not a novel idea, but seldom is this metaphor presented in calmly, evenly paced metrical language. Formally this poem is quite traditional, with an involved rhyme scheme (abcabc) in stanzas of six metered lines that consist of four fairly regular iambic feet; with few exceptions, there are eight syllables per line. Remarkably, these conventional features are not constricting; the poet manages flexibility in his phrasing and works with rhymes whose subtle musicality provides one of the age-old pleasures of poetry. Larkin often complained that modern verse, with its formal experiments and semantic subversions, leaves out the reader. Here Larkin involves the reader not only by means of the comforting, recognizable rhythms and look of the verse but also by presenting an absorbing scene that leads the reader to ponder the issues the poet raises.

In his accurate yet colloquial phrasing, the poet evokes details of the races (“Cups and Stakes and Handicaps,” “Silks,” “Numbers and parasols,” “fieldglass,” and “stop-watch”). The crowded excitement of glory days is suggested in words and phrases such as “heat,” “littered grass,” “the long cry/ Hanging unhushed,” words that also connote discomfort and strain. They provide a semantic echo of the opening scene, in which the wind is said to “distress tail and mane.” Saying that the horses have “slipped their names,” while literally referring to the fact that the horses have outlived their celebrity, also points to the freedom of quiet anonymity.

Finally, “dusk,” “shadows,” and “evening” alert the reader to the symbolic suggestiveness underlying the whole poem. In his diction Larkin subtly raises metaphysical issues that are dealt with in an accessible manner. The ideas come from a particular situation. They are not superimposed, nor is the scene manufactured merely to illustrate an idea. The reality takes center stage.