Discuss the poem and literary devices in "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke.

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carol-davis's profile pic

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

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“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke underscores the domination that a father has over a child.  What should be a fun way to end the day becomes a horrific experience for the little boy forced to dance with his drunken father.  All of the signs point to a family that is dysfunctional.

Narration and Setting

The narration of the poem is first person point of view with the young boy narrating the poem.  The setting is the family kitchen late in the evening because it is past the boy’s bed time.   


This poem consists of four quatrains.  It follows a set pattern with every other line rhyming.


The poem begins with the young boy waltzing with his father.  With the combination of the nauseating smell of the father and the spinning around, the boy is dizzy.  The boy is holding on for dear life because this dance is not easy. 

As they romp around, it is so unruly that the pots and pans fall off the shelves onto the floor. The mother is watching with a frowning expression.

The father held the boy’s wrist.  It seems strange that the father would hold onto his wrist rather that the boy’s hand. The father’s hand was bruised on his knuckle.  Obviously, he has hit his hand or has been in a fight.  Every step of the dance causes the boy’s right ear to be scraped by the father’s belt buckle.

The hand that held my wrist                 
Was battered on one knuckle;                     
At every step you missed                      
My right ear scraped a buckle.   

This dance is not the fun dance that a father might have with his little boy.  The mother does not interfere.  It is apparent that she is unhappy with the circumstances but is afraid to help the boy for fear that she may receive some of the abuse as well.

As the father and son continue to dance, the father beats the time to the dance on the top of the boy’s head.  His hand is dirty and hard.  Basically, he is hitting the boy on the head with his hand.  Finally, he danced him off to the bed still grasping on to the father’s shirt.


The poet uses alliteration to depict the various sounds and movements of the poem.

Waltzing was; countenance/could; hand that held;


Irony persists throughout the poem.  A waltz seems like a fun time between the father and son.  The whiskey, the smell, the dizziness—all of these do not make for the pleasant diversion.  Nothing in the poem seems to be quite right for the child.  Everything seems out of kilter despite the initial reaction to the name of the poem and the sound of the waltz.

The name of the poem is ironic in itself.  It is not the boy’s waltz, but rather the father’s waltz.  It is a time to spin and act foolish in his drunkenness. 

Simile and Metaphor

There is one simile in the poem.  “But I hung on for life…” The first indication in the poem of the unpleasantness of the dance shows the boy not happily dancing around with his father; but rather, he has to hang on to keep from being hurt.

The metaphor is extended throughout the poem.  It is the waltz that represents the dysfunctional family.  The domination of the father and his drinking make the family unable to have a pleasant time of dancing around and possibly including the mother in the fun experience.  Instead the boy has to undergo the wild romp and the mother observes without the ability to put an end to it.

alainarose98's profile pic

alainarose98 | eNotes Newbie

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This poem also shows the love a child has for their parent. Children, especially young children, love their parents and believe that they can do no wrong. Even if a parent hurts their child, the child will find an excuse for their parent's actions. 

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