imperfections. His father was a drunkard and perhaps because Roethke leads with this in the poem, the drunkenness is the reason for the abuse.
Thirdly, the poetic language in “My Papa’s Waltz” is so precise, that it can actually make for a more vexed debate on the meaning of the poem. Basically, it has controversial interpretations because words alone have different meanings. Starting with the title, “My Papa’s Waltz” discloses what the poem is about, a waltz, and with whom it is with, Papa. The waltz connotes an easiness and grace, and the word Papa is used which connotes an extreme closeness and admiration. Like the popular phrase goes, “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” one should not judge this poem by it’s title. Although the title conveys lightness, the content draws darkness and perversion.
Within the poem, there are particular words and their denotation that are important to understand when making one’s own interpretation. “Romped” (5) is most well-known for describing child’s play or roughhousing; however, there is another meaning—coitus. This immediately takes the poem’s interpretations to completely different conclusions. Perhaps the speaker is remembering an incestual relationship or molestation. The mother’s position is depicted next: “My mother’s countenance/ Could not unfrown itself” (7-8). The writer unquestionably meant for “countenance” to mean her face, however, it also means support.
Since this poem has so many probabilities of bad behavior, this word choice is questionable when interpreting the poem as a whole. Last is the word beat used in the line “You beat time on my head” (13). In context this seems witty, since the waltz of course has musical beats, however there is no definition in the verb form that would fit the context except for the violent form of the word. This would be the most explicit confession of abuse in the poem. These words mistakenly lead the reader to believe that the poem lighthearted, but this is an ignorant perception. Altogether, the speaker’s admiration is almost impossible to identify behind these two-toned words.
Another form of poetic language is metaphor which can be a useful tool in revealing the emotion in this poem, especially since it is difficult to detect. The only simile, a type of metaphor, in the poem evokes the most haunting notion with: “I hung on like death” (3). Basically, death is the only inevitable in life that one cannot evade—it clings to all. This introduces the reader to a darker ideology, further confirming that there is a poignant tone. In the scope of things, “My Papa’s Waltz” is a metaphor for the father-son relationship in the poem. The waltz represents the dance between love and resentment between the father and son.
In sum, one’s personal experiences with his or her father or father figures may sway them to interpret “My Papa’s Waltz” to be strictly a happy or traumatic memory. Just like many relationships, people may only see the good on the outside, however, the relationship may be broken on the inside. Each literary element helps to build the illusion that the memory is in admiration of the father, but seeing through that illusion allows the reader to see the abuse the speaker endured in his childhood.
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