In Theodore Roethke's poem "My Papa's Waltz," what methods are used to characterize not only the waltz itself but the speaker's feelings about the waltz?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In “My Papa’s Waltz,” Theodore Roethke uses techniques of implication to characterize not only the waltz itself but also the speaker’s feelings about the waltz.  Those methods of implication and connotation include the following:

  • The opening line mentions the smell of “whiskey” on the father’s breath – a reference that immediately raises the possibility that the father was not in complete control of his behavior.  This, after all, is the very first detail the speaker reports, suggesting that it seems especially significant to him as he recalls the waltz. The possibility that the father may not have been in complete control of himself seems a bit menacing or unnerving.
  • The speaker directly addresses the father in line one while recalling a long-ago event. Such direct address implies that for some reason the memory is important to the speaker and that it is still vivid in his mind.
  • The second line identifies the speaker as having been a “small boy” at the time of the waltzing, implying a significant disparity between the power and strength of such a boy and his whiskey-drinking father.  This disparity raises the possibility that the boy found the waltz somewhat unnerving.
  • Lines 3-4 reinforce the idea that the young boy found such waltzing a not entirely pleasant experience:

. . . I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy. [emphasis added]

The word “romped,” in line 5, is the first word that might suggest that the waltzing was a pleasant and enjoyable experience, something humorous and playful. However, that would is somewhat counterbalanced by the rest of the second stanza, which describes how

. . . the pans

Slid from the kitchen shelf;

My mother's countenance

Could not unfrown itself. (5-8)

Here the imagery of disorder and chaos can again be interpreted as literally unsettling, while the reference to the mother’s frowns might seem somewhat comic but might also seem a bit disturbing – implying tensions between the parents, with the young speaker caught between them. On the other hand, the fact that the mother merely frowns may suggest that she was not enormously upset by her husband’s behavior. After all, she did not scream or vigorously protest.

  • The fact that the father’s hand was “battered on one knuckle” (10) opens the possibility that the father may earlier have been in a drunken fight, or that he may have fallen and hurt himself because of drunkenness, or, at the very least, that he somehow hurt himself in a way that suggests that he may not have been entirely careful of his son’s safety, either. The fact that the father held the son by the wrist, rather than holding him up, more carefully, and closer to him, suggests that he was not especially gentle in his dancing.
  • The fact that the father missed steps (11) suggests again that he was drunk; the fact that the son’s ear “scraped a buckle” (12) at every missed step again suggests that the father was not being especially careful in his treatment of his young son, thus causing memorable pain.
  • The references to the father “beat[ing]” time on the young boy’s head escalates our sense of the father’s drunken carelessness. Likewise, the final verb – “clinging” (16) – suggests the boy’s fear or, at the very least, his sense of a lack of control. He was, in a sense, entirely at his father’s mercy. The fact that he didn’t protest may imply fear of his father or, alternatively, love of his father in spite of everything.

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