“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke should be a pleasant memory for a son. The poem is narrated by the son who recalls this night time memory in a flashback many years later. It may just be a night ritual or a night terror for the boy. The setting is the family kitchen where they eat, cook, and now dance wildly
Written in four quatrains, the rhyme scheme follows a set pattern of every other line rhyming. The entire poem is an extended metaphor for the relationship between the father and son. Although the title of the poem announces it as the father’s dance, actually it is a shared moment which is really not what the word waltz represents: a beautiful dance in ¾ time which could either be lively or slow and measured.
Each stanza comes from the memory of the child translated by the adult. The images refer to one of the senses.
The father’s smell was alcoholically nauseating to the little boy. The son danced with his father and hung on so tightly as though hanging on for his life because the father’s dance was not an easy one.
The father and son cavorted around the kitchen so wildly that the pots and pans slid off the shelves. There is another watcher of the scene. The mother is visually disturbed by this wild dance that her face had a permanent scowl as she watched them.
The father’s hand was injured. The poet refers to it as “the hand” not “your hand.” This makes the hand seem more ominous. Had the father used the hand for disciplining? He held his son not by his hand but by his wrist. Whenever the father stumbled or tripped, he hurt the boy’s ear as it scraped against 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.’
As they danced around, his father hit the boy on the head to count the time. This is almost like a physical assault. Again, the father’s hands are mentioned as being extremely dirty. Finally, the father dances the boy into his bedroom wildly because the boy had to cling onto the father’s shirt.
Several aspects of the poem indicate a child's point of view. The vocabulary is monosyllabic which would indicate a small child's voice. The first line of the poem is the key to understanding the poem: the father is drunk which determines how the waltz goes. In the third stanza, the boy is young because he is only as tall s the belt on his father's pants.
The mother does nothing to help her son. The explanation may come from a fear that she holds for herself if she were to interfere. She may also be afraid to interrupt the dance which might make her husband angry with the boy. For some reason, she does nothing to help him. Her facial expression is indicative of an abused woman.
This should have been a wonderful memory for the son with his father dancing him around the room. The mother could have been keeping time or just enjoying her boys having fun turns out to be a rather sad memory. Instead, it is a raucous, hurtful time.