My Papa’s Waltz
BY THEODORE ROETHKE
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
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My Papa’s Waltz Analysis
“My Papa’s Waltz” is a short poem by a modern American poet Theodore Roethke. The poem was written in the 1940s and set in some earlier decade, and describes a scene from family life, when a tipsy father waltzes with his little son around the kitchen. It might have been inspired by the impressions from the poet’s childhood. This is one of the poet’s most popular works.
Form and Meter
The poem is very brief, consisting only of 4 stanzas of four lines each, following a plain ABAB rhyme scheme and using iambic trimeter (iamb with three stressed syllables per line) to make the poem good-sounding and easy-flowing. Its three stressed syllables in a line resemble an actual waltz, which has three beats.
It uses the so-called slant rhymes, with similarly sounding but not quite corresponding words. An example is the rhyme “dizzy-easy” (from the first stanza). This adds to the stumbling effect of the poem. Short lines in the poem are similar to the ones used in poetry for children. However, the writer uses more complex words, such as “countenance” to remind the reader that the speaker is an adult man.
The poem deals with a number of somewhat controversial issues such as family and relations between family members, love, power and authority, manliness, and arguably violence and fear. The poem itself is ambiguous and quite difficult to interpret clearly.
The main symbol in the poem is waltz. Waltz is a dance involving interaction and interdependence between two people, thus symbolizing the relationship between the father and the son, as emotional and controversial as it might be.
Use of Literary Expressive Means
The poem predominantly uses rhyme and rhythm (iambic trimester) to make it sound pleasant and smooth to the reader, creating playful and light tone lulling the reader and thus distracting their attention from what can be the rather disturbing content. Other than that, the use of expressive means is scarce. The only metaphor or simile in the text is found in the phrase “I hung on like death” (Line 3) which means holding very tightly and also adds some darker tone to the poem.
Story and Meaning
The entire story is told from a viewpoint of the protagonist recollecting a moment from his childhood. The story of the whiskey-drinking father fiercely waltzing his child around the room, holding him roughly and beating time on his head, might be interpreted in a positive and negative way – either the father, a rough, simple and hard-working man, loves his son and wants to have fun dancing with him, doing it in a simple man’s clumsy manner, or this is a story of a drunkard actually neglecting and abusing his child.
The remark that they were making a mess of the kitchen, when they “romped until the pans/ slid from the kitchen shelf”, and the mother of the boy was not happy about it, but kept silent, as the “mother’s countenance /could not unfrown itself” does not make the situation any clearer. The only active character is the father, exercising his power over his family members who obey him. The father is an active manly character and a role model for his young son.
The entire poem is ambiguous and even the word choice is confusing – the word “beat” means the musical beat in the waltz but might also be suggestive of the father beating his son with his belt, while the belt is also mentioned it the poem for some reason – either simply as a clothing detail or a symbol of abuse.
The lines telling that the boy “hung on like death” on his father’s shirt because “such waltzing was not easy” might also suggest either the boy’s strong love for his father or the fact that it was difficult for the boy to deal with him.
Even the title of the poem itself is confusing – waltz is supposing to be a flowing and graceful dance, not a clumsy “romping”, missing steps and kicking things down from the shelves. On the other hand, a hard-working man’s fun dancing with his child who will grow into an adult man, too, might be more rough and aggressive expression of the father’s love and not something particularly gentle.
However, the entire poem might be an expression of love of the son for his father, keeping in mind that the poem was written in earlier times when drinking and even punishing children was considered quite a normal everyday thing and also that the author’s father died when the author was only 14, so he might have loved his father despite all difficulties and mistakes.
Thus, the ultimate interpretation of the poem depends solely on the reader and his or her experience.