By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Cut Grass’ is one of the shortest famous poems by Philip Larkin (1922-85). Completed in June 1971, the poem was published in Larkin’s last volume of poems, High Windows, in 1974. It’s a short lyric about newly cut grass, hovering between celebration and mourning. You can read ‘Cut Grass’ here; in this post, we discuss the poem and offer a brief analysis of its language and themes.
Philip Larkin would write another poem about mowing grass: one of his last poems, ‘The Mower’, was inspired by a real-life incident, when Larkin accidentally killed a hedgehog sheltering in the long grass while he was mowing the lawn.
Summary and Analysis
In ‘Cut Grass’, Larkin contemplates the frailty of newly cut grass, in an opening line which is at once ordinary and epic: ordinary because there is hardly anything more normal and unremarkable than mowing the lawn, and epic because it quietly evokes the famous biblical metaphor for the frailty of humankind (‘all flesh is grass’).
In his review of High Windows for The Guardian in 1974, Derwent May said of ‘Cut Grass’ that it ‘expresses in twelve short lines an extraordinarily complex set of feelings’. The cut grass is a symbol for death, the blades of grass breathing their last few brief gasps before dying; but they die in ‘young-leafed June’, a time of year when the natural world is still coming into new life and new leaf.
Death and life are suggestively juxtaposed: is this, then, a poem in praise of early summer or a reminder that ‘in the midst of life we are in death’ (to borrow another sonorous religious phrase)?
Things are further complicated by the confusion of summer with winter: in the depths of summer the hedges appear to be ‘strewn’ with snow, but it is really their blossom and leaves of the white lilac that adorns them, which are merely ‘snowlike’ (Larkin may even have been remembering A. E. Housman’s ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’, which contains the same image). This summery blossom is likened to wintry snow and a time when the branches and boughs are bare.
‘Queen Anne’s lace’, by the way, is another name for Daucus carota, a flowering plant. This introduces another metaphor for the flowers into the poem, but because it is an established alternative name for a real flower, this lacy image does not seem overtly ‘poetic’ or forced.
The run-on lines of the poem help to convey the headlong rush of nature, time’s relentless march forward. ‘Cut Grass’ is about something brief but also eternal: cut grass does not survive long once it is mown, but the cycle of nature and the seasons is never-ending. Like many of Philip Larkin’s greatest poems, ‘Cut Grass’ is a mixture of the everyday or small and the grand, perennial themes which concern us all.