Admiration or Abuse in “My Papa’s Waltz”

Everyone has a father and has their own personal feelings towards father figures due to personal experiences. It is easy to project those experiences onto Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” as it is about an adult son’s recollection of “waltzing” with his father as a young boy. Furthermore, because the speaker seems detached, readers’ objective interpretations of the poem vary. Some believe it to be a gleeful child memory, while others contend it to be a confession of childhood abuse. In retrospect, “My Papa’s Waltz” confirms both perspectives and reveals the speaker’s ambivalent emotions toward his father through poetic tone, form, and language.

Firstly, the poetic tone in “My Papa’s Waltz” is a perfect reflection of the nuances of emotion that the speaker feels towards his father. Generally readers either think the tone is either playful or resentful. In actuality, the poem consists of many more facets of tone. In life, growing up consists of realizing how our childhood experiences made impressions on us as adults. Since this is written in the persona of an adult, mature thoughts and feelings are displayed rather than childish ones. The biggest realization for the speaker is that he was abused as a child. This shows a mournful tone for his inner child for whom he feels sympathy for. As an adult, he holds a poignant tone that represents his disappointment for his father’s flagrant behavior.

Secondly, the most overt poetic form in “My Papa’s Waltz” is of sound: rhyme and rhythm, which can be misleading elements. Roethke created the pleasant rhythm of iambic trimeter which makes the poem sound short and sweet. The rhyme further trances the reader into believing that the tone of the poem is light and playful. However, this rhyme and rhythm is deceiving.

There is an implication that there is something not quite sound with this seemingly pleasant memory in the dissonant sounds. The rhyming scheme utilizes assonance in which the rhyming words are not completely identical such as “dizzy” and “easy” (Roethke 2,4). These slight imperfections reflect the speaker’s feelings towards his father. Although he has unconditional love for his father, that love cannot mask those 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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