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Take One Home for the Kiddies
On shallow straw, in shadeless glass,
Living toys are something novel,
Though this is only a short poem, it displays all Larkin’s usual characteristics. It’s largely a narrative poem, based on a walk past a pet shop, and has the usual dialogue features. The simple abab rhyme scheme of the two stanzas suggests the simplistic was of looking at life that is expressed within the poem, similar in some ways to ‘Self’s the Man’.
In the first stanza, Larkin paints a picture of these animals’ lives. “Shallow” gives a sense of their meaningless existence, “shadeless glass” conveys an image of them behind glass in the sun’s harsh glare, “empty bowls” suggests that they are being starved, and then in the next line, the constant repetition of “no” enforces the deprivation, with “no dam” means “no mother”. The poem doesn’t describe a specific animal, however, making it more universal.
The final line of the stanza is the first piece of dialogue, the children’s words with the colloquial “Mam”. The child’s utterance shows an innocence that only comes in childhood, demanding one “to keep”. He or she doesn’t appreciate that the animal will eventually die, believing in “always”. The comical utterance is a sharp contrast to the dark image of suffering painted in the previous lines.
The animals are diminished to “living toys”, and in that “it soon wears off somehow”, it shows how fickle children are. The ending is very matter of fact, through the use of the imperative: “Fetch the shoebox, fetch the shovel” – and then the simple matter-of-fact, unfeeling speech: “Mam, we’re playing funerals now”.
The death of the pet, an almost universal occurrence in children’s lives, teaches them about death and the transience of life, an integral part of growing up. In its epigrammatic style (short, punchy), it is satirical – we don’t understand the rehearsal for life that we give children when we indulge them in pets.