Poetry 131: The Mower by Philip Larkin

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The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

If you would like to suggest a poem for inclusion in this series then please email me at richard@middlewaysociety.org.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com

About Richard Flanagan

I’m an Operating Department Practitioner who works for my local NHS trust in Shropshire, UK. I’m married with two young children (plus two dogs and a corn snake) and am currently undertaking an Open University degree in History. I listen to a lot of music of all genres, but especially Rock (Punk, Alternative etc.) and enjoy cooking, eating and drinking. Although I don’t consider myself to be a Buddhist I am interested in some Buddhist ideas and practices. As such, I was briefly active with Secular Buddhism UK and it was through that group that I came to be involved with the Middle Way Society.

6 thoughts on “Poetry 131: The Mower by Philip Larkin

  1. Yes, it leaves its mark, such casual and careless killing. I remember vividly lighting a heap of brushwood in the African bush and watching the fire catch and the smoke rise with satisfaction, then hearing a thin piping sound from inside the conflagration as it took fierce hold. So I probed it with a fork, and uncovered a nest of tiny thumb-sized ratlets, pink and squirming as they died. I seldom light an outside fire without thinking of those tiny creatures, and their rat mother, and how I killed them wantonly, and feel pain still at their death, and shame.

  2. It makes me think of all the rabbits I inadvertently ran over on the roads when I used to live in rural Cumbria. Then there was the sheep…. But if we use these machines, this is what will happen. If we wanted to avoid the side-effects, we would have to give up using the dangerous machinery.

  3. This poem also reminded me of how my own careless actions have sometimes resulted in harm, but it also reminded me of the Hedgehog that my son and I rescued a week or so ago.

    One of the things that struck me about this poem was the way in which Larkin juxtaposes the accidental death of the Hedgehog with notions of kindness. He was kind enough to feed it, and it’s death reminded him that life can be short and uncertain, leading him to reflect:

    ‘Of each other, we should be kind
    While there is still time’.

    Death can occur at any time and for myriad reasons; as careful as we may aim to be this is unavoidable. We can, nonetheless, choose to treat others with kindness and respect, instead of fear, suspicion or indifference.

    1. Just a thought, provoked by your comment, Rich, on Larkin’s kindness in feeding a hedgehog. I have doubts about the kindness of feeding wild animals. As the hedgehog in question was “in the long grass” at the time of its unfortunate demise, it’s unlikely that Larking was mowing the lawn in winter. It’s likely, I surmise, that the hedgehog was foraging for insects, grubs, snails and whatever else tickles a hedgehogs fancy in mid-summer or early autumn, and may not have ‘needed’ feeding.

      Feeding wild animals except perhaps putting out feed for birds in winter is possibly misplaced. It encourages them to seek food out in human habitats, where the risk of predation from domestic animals is very high, or mechanical injury. One reads that certain types of ‘human’ food are, indeed, unsuitable for hedgehog consumption, and may make them ill. It may seem a ‘kind’ thing to do from a sentimentally human perspective, but I’m rather dubious about the validity of that kind of kindness.

      Anyway, it’s just a thought.

      I do feed the chickens we keep for eggs. I am also sentimentally attached to them, I don’t know how culturally aligned or misplaced those feelings are, perhaps it’s a weakness, but I comfort myself in the knowledge that I share with it many others, I always greet them with “Hello, girls!” and comment approvingly or chidingly about their behaviour and/or appearance, it’s a pathetic fallacy that they hear me or understand me, or that I sensibly interpret their wide range of clucks. But it’s a bit of engaging nonsense.

  4. Hi Peter,

    I take your point about intended acts of kindness sometimes actually causing harm, but I’m not sure this applies to the act of feeding Hedgehogs. A better example might be in what someone chooses to feed them with. People have traditionally left milk out for Hedgehogs, thinking that they are being helpful. In doing this a great many people have probably been responsible for the deaths of Hedgehogs, as milk causes them to have diarrhoea, which for a wild animal is bad news. However, I would still argue that this can still be counted as an act of kindness because the intentions are good, hence the phrase ‘killing with kindness’, I guess. If one knows the effects of milk on Hedgehogs but persists in putting out for personal gratification (in seeing the animal, rather than causing harm), then this becomes a selfish act.

    A further point on Hedgehog care (especially in the UK, where they are now endangered). It is advised that we do everything possible to encourage them into our gardens. We, for better or worse, share habitats and in urban areas the Hedgehogs are struggling to survive. Hedgehogs have large territories and these are becoming increasingly fragmented with the emergence of modern garden design. What we can do to help (including what to feed them) is detailed on St. Tiggywinkles’ (Hedgehog charity) website: http://www.sttiggywinkles.org.uk/top-navigation/wildlife-advice/hedgehog-fact-sheet.html.

    In the case of Larkin’s unfortunate Hedgehog, as it was out in the day it was probably in trouble. If he had taken care to check his long grass for critters before mowing then he would have found it. In this case he should have collected it and taken it to his nearest Hedgehog sanctuary (or Vets if a sanctuary is not easily accessible).

    I think that our capacity to have meaningful relationships (that are often, though not always, reciprocated) with animals is a wonder. While we should be careful, I do think that, where appropriate, we should intervene to assist their survival, especially if they are suffering due to human activity.

    Rich.

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