By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Take One Home for the Kiddies’ first appeared in Larkin’s third poetry collection, The Whitsun Weddings, in 1964. Like a number of Larkin’s poems – see ‘First Sight’, ‘The Mower’, and ‘Myxomatosis’ for three other notable examples – the poem is about animals, and specifically about the callousness with which humans sometimes act towards pets. You can read ‘Take One Home for the Kiddies’ here, before proceeding to our analysis below.
Start with the title, as so often with poems (especially Larkin’s poems, with their carefully chosen titles). ‘Take One Home for the Kiddies’ sounds like a slogan or tagline adorning a poster or other advertisement outside a pet shop: the advert addresses itself to the parents (with the cutesy and playful ‘kiddies’ carrying a twang of American commercialism, ‘kids’ having originated in the US as a slang term for children), but the poem itself introduces the children’s voices as they, in turn, address their parents.
The implication behind all this is that pet shops encourage parents to buy a living creature for their children but neither the pet shop, nor the purchasing parents, take full responsibility for the children’s irresponsibility towards the pet.
This can be seen by summarising the content of the poem’s two stanzas: the first introduces the unspecified pets in the window of the pet shop, which are being kept on an inadequately thin bed of straw, behind panes of glass which offer no escape from the sun’s glare. These animals have been deprived of the features of their natural habitat: shade, water, earth, grass, reinforced by the quadruple use of ‘no’ in the third line. The fourth line, italicised to show the shift in voice from the poem’s speaker to the children, sees the children asking their mother to buy one of the pets ‘to keep’.
But in the second stanza, as so often in Larkin’s poetry, the speaker’s descriptive voice gives way to a more thoughtful and reflective voice, which analyses the broader ramifications of the scene described earlier in the poem. The description of the pets as ‘Living toys’ marks them as mere playthings for the children, whose novelty – as with any toy – soon wears off. The children end up – by accident or design is not stated – killing the pet as the last part of their ‘game’ with it.
This second stanza ends, like the first, with the italicised children’s voice, informing their mother that they’re ‘playing funerals now’. The poor creature’s life, and its death, have been nothing but a game.
What marks this as a slightly different Larkin poem from many of his other, longer poems is that the analysis of the situation ends there: there is no consideration of why children are inclined to act in this callous and selfish way towards the animals that have, in a very real sense, been brought under their care. No analysis is necessary: it is enough for Larkin to state the situation and let us draw our own conclusions from it.
Note the telling use of the word ‘somehow’ in the second line of the second stanza: the novelty of having a living, breathing pet to look after wears off ‘somehow’, implying that we cannot quite say why young, otherwise innocent children (who are not psychopathic in the clinical sense) would become so heartless towards their pets, but also implying a certain nonchalance towards the situation, as if it is a question that it’s foolish even to ask.
The off-rhyme of novel/shovel reinforces the fact that there is something off about the situation, not just the fact that children can behave so cruelly but that we, as adults, conspire to allow it, whether as pet-shop owners, parents, or simply as members of the human race.
Larkin was deeply interested in animal welfare and, with his long-term girlfriend Monica Jones, shared a love of Beatrix Potter’s tales of furry creatures such as bunny rabbits, hedgehogs, and mice. It is little wonder that such a poet should have written ‘Take One Home for the Kiddies’. It’s a powerful attack on our attitudes towards children and their pets, made all the more powerful by the poem’s refusal to go on the offensive. Pointing it out, somehow, is enough.