Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In this poem about things dying, the death of the boy’s wish for kittens is mourned as heavily as the death of the boy. In fact, the poem seems almost to be, with its catalog of pets that die, an elegy for small pleasures. Pleasures often die or are lost to those who believe their daily routines are all-important. Possibilities for joy are also sometimes forsaken by those who fear taking risks—even small ones.

Thus one theme of the poem is to question the illusion of “safety” from life’s horrors; there really was no way his father could have spared the boy from suffering, or even suffering only over each lost pet. The “blue, fatal jolt” can happen again and again in anyone’s life. The poem suggests that only when one accepts life openly, with all of its risks, can one truly begin to live. Another suggestion is made about risks: that the boy, had he lived, would have dealt with the risks and dangers of his own life capably, and as a child, with a childlike openness that a wise adult might envy. Richard did not really need to be and could not have been protected from life. He “seized the dish,” he was so eager.

As if to prove how futile it was for the father to refuse the boy his kittens, the kittens arrive anyway. They resurrect the boy’s wish; in fact, they return the boy to the father in the vehicle of this poem. The kittens represent the acceptance of death, and therefore the acceptance of life.