What connotations are used in the poem "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Some interpretations of the poem “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke portray the  poem as a pleasant memory of a father and son romp before the boy goes to bed.  However, there are many clues in the poem that lead the reader to understand that this vignette has more abusive layers.

The setting of the poem is the kitchen. The poem is in the mind of the boy who finds himself in a difficult situation.  It is a child’s perspective.  The language is simple, yet his words have more than one meaning. Each of the four quatrains conveys a part of the incident which adds to the child’s fear. 


Stanza one- The poem begins with the statement that controls the rest of the poem: the father has been drinking, possibly excessively since the smell of the whiskey makes the boy dizzy.  As the two of them dance around the room, the boy has to hang on tightly. 

The poet uses a simile to explain how much he has to hold on to his father: “But I hung on like death.” The poet could have chosen the other cliché which states:  “I hung on for dear life” which is less scary and less harmful sounding.  Apparently, the boy is quite frightened if he has this thought in his mind.  Ending with a very precise statement of the dancing scene: “Such waltzing was not easy,” it is established that the boy is not having a good time.   is it  He is dizzy.  The father smells. 

Stanza two-The dancing is quite wild.  They are no longer just dancing, now they are romping, horsing around, cavorting, bounding about.  It is such a wild scene that the pans are falling off the shelves. 

The mother is watching. The boy uses a multi-syllabic word for his mother’s face: countenance. Her face has a frown that she does not give up to the situation. It is a scowl.

My mother’s countenance

Could not unfrown itself.

The unfrown reminds us that this is still a child looking at his mother’s face, hoping that she will intervene; however, she does nothing.  This indicates that she is afraid because of the abuse that she knows may fall on her. Thus, the danger for the boy is increased because the mother as the audience is powerless.

Stanza three-The father’s hand is injured.  The child notices this as he looks at his father holding not his hand, but his wrist.  Apparently, the father stumbles and misses steps.  When he does this, the boy is hurt by the father’s belt buckle which is even with the boy’s ear.  This reinforces the idea that he ends with in the first stanza: Waltzing was not easy. He is not having fun in this encounter with his father.

At every step you missed

My right ear scraped his buckle.

Stanza four-Talking directly to his father , he tells him that he used the boy’s head to beat  time, essentially hitting him on the head.  The father’s hands were dirty; but, more importantly, they were hard.  Finally, the father danced him off to bed with the boy still clinging or hanging on to his father’s shirt. 

The child's vocabulary choices are single syllables, except for his reference to his mother. As he tells the story, the rhythm of the word placement gives the poem a ¾ waltz time.  His words are short and choppy indicating that the waltz is not smooth and flowing but erratic. 

The poem speaks to a scene of terror for the boy and his mother. The father may not intend to hurt him, but his drunkenness keeps him from realizing that he is hurting his son.  The poem is a series of dizzying painful glimpses.



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