By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Philip Larkin wrote ‘The Mower’ in early summer 1979, and the poem was published in Humberside, the magazine of the Hull Literary Club, in autumn that same year. It’s the last truly great poem Larkin wrote, and, like many of his poems, takes a very simple everyday scene as its focus. And, like many of Larkin’s poems, death is one of its main themes.
‘The Mower’ was inspired by a real-life event: Larkin was mowing his lawn when he accidentally killed a hedgehog that had been hidden among the long grass, exactly as recounted in the poem. One couldn’t get more down-to-earth and everyday than a poet mowing the lawn.
(As we’ve revealed elsewhere, Larkin himself often mowed the lawn wearing a D. H. Lawrence T-shirt, although the incident which inspired ‘The Mower’ took place a year before he acquired that surprising addition to his wardrobe.)
Larkin is mowing the lawn when he inadvertently kills a hedgehog. This would be sad enough, but he knew something of the animal’s life, having seen it before. He is depicted as someone who clearly cares about animals, confiding that he had fed the creature once before, like a pet. (This is true to Larkin’s real character: he had a track record of being kind to animals, and was also a fan of Beatrix Potter, who created Mrs Tiggywinkle, one of the most famous fictional hedgehogs.)
Larkin reflects that he had put an end to this poor creature’s life. The hedgehog didn’t mean anyone any harm, but Larkin – through failing to check the long grass for animals – had snuffed out its life. Burying it didn’t help him to overcome the feeling of shame and sadness, nor did a good night’s sleep, for when he woke the next morning it was to the realisation that the creature would never wake up again. (As James Booth points out in his biography Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, this is somewhat inaccurate, since hedgehogs are nocturnal.)
As so often in a Philip Larkin poem, in the third stanza, Larkin zooms out from this specific death to consider all death: the first day after a death, he says, it’s always the same as we have to adjust to the person’s ‘absence’. Or a creature’s absence – as anyone who has ever lost a pet will be able to vouch. Having a pet, it is often said, is our parents’ way of teaching us about death and loss early on.
Indeed, Larkin wrote another poem, ‘Take One Home for the Kiddies’, all about the careless killing of a pet by thoughtless children, who learn about death but also, the poem hints, had a hand in causing that death themselves. Larkin ends ‘The Mower’ by urging us to be more careful of each other, and more kind to each other, while we still have time to do so. For death comes for us all. It came for Larkin six years after he wrote this poem.
The title of Larkin’s poem, ‘The Mower’, calls to mind another Hull-based poet, Andrew Marvell, who wrote a series of ‘mower’ poems, such as ‘The Mower to the Glow-Worms’. Marvell’s mower referred to a person who mowed the grass while Larkin’s refers to a modern machine for mowing the lawn, but the Marvell link does raise the distinct possibility that Larkin’s title is meant to be laden with multiple meanings.
The ‘mower’ is not just the lawnmower used by Larkin but Larkin himself, performing the act of pushing the mower; and Larkin himself as not simply one who mows down grass but also one who – like that other mower, the Grim Reaper also known as Death – mows down other living things in its path, like hedgehogs.
A word of analysis about the form of ‘The Mower’, by way of conclusion. The first three of the poem’s four stanzas are three lines long, with each line roughly being of the same length. But the fourth and final stanza cuts off halfway through: it is more or less exactly half the length of the previous three three-line stanzas, at just one-and-a-half lines long.
This curtailment reinforces the message of that final stanza: namely that the time remaining for us to be kind to each other is shorter than we might think. The near-miss between ‘kind’ and ‘time’ in that final stanza summons the spectre of a rhyme but denies us any neat conclusion, just as it is easier said than done to claim that we are going to be kinder to each other.
The unrhymed lines of the rest of the poem also protest too much: ‘blades’ and ‘grass’ hiss with the same sibilance in their final syllables, like a snake in the grass; they are also semantically linked (blades of grass, after all, though the ‘blades’ here are those of the cruel mower that feasts upon the grass rather than the grass itself), as are ‘careful’ and ‘kind’ but also ‘help’; ‘absence’ faintly echoes ‘once’, just as that ‘once’, in light of the creature’s death, reminds us that there will not be a twice, that Larkin will never be able to feed the hedgehog again now. (That ‘once’ also stands in stark opposition to the ‘twice’ in that first line: ‘The mower stalled, twice’.)
It’s also worth noting that the association between wishing to be kind to animals (but not always succeeding) and hedgehogs was also made by the key poetic influence on Larkin’s work, Thomas Hardy, in his poem ‘Afterwards’:
If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.’
In the last analysis, ‘The Mower’ is a short and simple poem about being kinder to each other, in light of the fact that we – and other people – will not be around forever. Although it was written after Philip Larkin’s golden age of poetic creativity, it remains a favourite with many of his readers.