What role does the buckle that scraped the ear play in "My Papa's Waltz"?

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teachertaylor's profile pic

teachertaylor | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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In Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz," the speaker mentions the buckle in the third stanza of the poem.  In the context of the poem, the buckle is a helpful indicator of the speaker's height, and the reader infers that if the speaker's ear hits the buckle, then he must be relatively short and hence young.  Further, the speaker says that he hits the buckle every time his father misses a step in their "dance," indicating that the father is drunkenly dancing.

Some readers interpret the buckle as an indicator that the father is abusive to the son.  In times when disciplining children was common practice, parents might use a belt when punishing their children.  So some readers see the buckle as a symbol for this type of punishment taken a step too far when the father is drunk.

ryzamartinez's profile pic

ryzamartinez | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Honors

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It can be an indication of physical exploitation between the father and the persona. Such action from the father may be considered as an aftermath of alcoholic abuse. The drama behind these lines is further intensified by the succeeding “My mother’s countenance / could not unfrown itself.” The picture of a helpless, depressed mother watching a child being abused comes to mind. Such imagery is extended until the last stanza of the poem, only that in the last stanza, with the persona stating “You beat time on my head,” the tone of the poem shifted from a pensive, hurtful one into a tone that is suggestive of prolonged hardship and endurance. It is said that “At every step you missed / my right ear scraped a buckle.” The poem’s persona grew from being the sacrificing one into being a fighting one. A complete metamorphosis of the persona is seen, from naïveté into adult apprehension.

jayare's profile pic

jayare | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

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In this poem its about a father's love for his child. The scraping the ear part tell us, (the reader), that this a young child. He is holding his son close to him. (Hugging).

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