In the introduction to his 1962 anthology ‘The New Poetry’ the critic Al Alvarez called this poem ‘elegant and unpretentious and rather beautiful in its gentle way’ but saw it as too genteel and went on to compare it unfavourably with the Ted Hughes poem ‘A Dream of Horses’, which he praised for its greater urgency, its reaching back to ‘a nexus of fear and sensation’. Now, if we must turn poetry into some kind of slugfest there are indeed Hughes poems that can go toe to toe with good Larkin, but I really do not think ‘A Dream of Horses’ is one of them, and surely only a very blinkered adherence to an ideological preconception of poetry could have allowed Alvarez to think that it was. Yes, Larkin’s horses are, as Alvarez says, social creatures, seen through a prism of human association, but rightly or wrongly that is the way most of us, genteel or not, see horses, and I can only say that fifty years on, I can’t remember a line of the Hughes poem, but ‘At Grass’ is still there, elegant and elegiac, full of Larkin’s exquisitely precise verbal play – consider that ‘distresses’ – and moments of what Seamus Heaney called Larkin’s ‘Shakespearean felicity’.
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.
Yet fifteen years ago, perhaps
Two dozen distances sufficed
To fable them: faint afternoons
Of Cups and Stakes and Handicaps,
Whereby their names were artificed
To inlay faded, classic Junes —
Silks at the start: against the sky
Numbers 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.
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 crowds and cries —
All but the unmolesting meadows.
Almanacked, their names live; they
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 groom, and the groom’s boy,
With bridles in the evening come.