‘Take One Home for the Kiddies’ by Philip Larkin first appeared in Larkin’s most famous collection, The Whitsun Weddings, in 1964. It touches are themes familiar to Larkin’s work, such as the relationship, often the apathetic one, between humans and their pets.
The text is made up of two short stanzas that are separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. These quatrains follow a specific rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD. This kind of simple rhyme scheme is unusual for Larkin’s work but makes sense when one considers the content of ‘Take One Home for the Kiddies.’
In regards to the meter, the lines are also consistent. They are all written in iambic tetrameter. This means that each contains four sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
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The poem begins with the speaker throwing the reader into a shelter. It is a terrible place where the animals are clearly suffering. They have no sun or grass and are constantly under lights, as if they are products for sale. This feature of the human/non-human animal relationship is emphasized throughout the text. Especially in the fourth line in which a child asks their mother if she will purchase an animal for them.
These creatures are bought, played with temporarily, and then neglected without feeling. The second stanza describes the emotionless passing of the animal and its burial in the backyard. No one in this short poem seems to care about the death, in fact, the child is entertained by the prospect of playing “funerals.”
You can read the full poem here.
Speaker, Tone, and Mood
The speaker in this piece alternates between an omniscient narrator who can look down over all the terrible things that happen to animals when they are at the mercy of humans, and the voice of a child. The childlike nature of the poem is emphasized by the rhyme scheme.
The sing song-like rhythm that is created with the ABAB rhyme scheme contributes to the tone as well. It makes the speaker seem detached from the events as they play out. They are willing to address everything that happens to the animals in the text but they don’t pass judgment on the events.
The same cannot be said for the mood Larkin brings to the poem. The fact that he wrote this poem, and chose such a callous narrator, shows how much he cared about the neglect often visited upon non-human animals. He wanted to highlight this fact in this disturbing, short piece.
One of the first techniques a reader will come across in ‘‘Take One Home for the Kiddies’ is alliteration. This occurs when the poet uses words that begin with the same letter within the same line or in close succession. A good example of the technique in action is in line one of the first stanza. Here, Larkin uses three words beginning with the letter “s.”
The first line of the text is also a good example of another technique at work in the poem, caesura. This is when there is a metrical break in the centre of a line. This pause occurs between the phrase “On shallow straw” and “in shadeless grass.” There are four syllables on either side. The same pause happens in the middle of the third and fourth lines as well.
Analysis of Take One Home for the Kiddies
On shallow straw, in shadeless glass,
Mam, get us one of them to keep.
In the first stanza of ‘Take One Home for the Kiddies’ the withdrawn narrator begins by setting the scene. He is not describing one particular event but a set of events that occurs all over the world when a family takes in an animal. The generalized characters of this text are likely within a shelter of some kind. It is a desolate place.
The animals, which are not defined as cats, dogs, etc, are sleeping “On shallow straw” and under “shadeless glass.” They are under bright lights which allow for “No dark.”
The distance that humans put between themselves and other animals is the main problem that Larkin is contending with. Therefore, it makes sense that one is confronted with the basics of the situation before realizing that it is an animal in these conditions. The speaker also makes sure to mention that the creature has no access to “earth” or “grass.”
In the last line of the text the speaker switches. Now, the reader hears from a young voice. A child pipes up, asking “Mam” to “get us one of them to keep.” To the child, and to their parents, this is a simple transaction. There are no moral considerations to account for before adopting an animal. Generally, people have a hard time looking ahead and understanding the commitment to taking care of another life, especially one that is helpless on its own.
Larkin was also seeking to draw attention to the way that animals are commodified. The mother will “get” her child one of the animals to “keep.” Again, there is no consideration of what this might mean, the purchasing and maintaining of another being.
Living toys are something novel,
Mam, we’re playing funerals now.
The second stanza is even darker than the first. The child goes through the expected period of excitement over the pet and then their interest wains. Larkin wanted to emphasize the control that humans have over animals, probably with a focus on cats and dogs. He describes the animal as a “Living toy.” The animal’s own consciousness, desires, needs, and intrinsic value are not considered. It was something available to purchase, a temporary source of entertainment for a child, and then it “soon wears off somehow.”
Before the parents and child know it, the pet is dead. They are fetching the “shoebox” and the “shovel” in order to bury it in the backyard. Even this act, which should be depressing, embarrassing, traumatizing, and guilt-inducing all in one, is a game to the child.
The young speaker calls out to “Mam” again and says, “we’re playing funerals now.” There is no emotional connection between the animal and its temporary owners aside from the entertainment value its life and death can provide.