Is Roethke's poem "My Papa's Waltz" negative or positive? 

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Please note that poems are extremely subjective: that is to say, not everyone will have the same reaction to a poem as another person because our specific and personal experiences influence our perceptions. This is my favorite poem, based completely on my preferences of poetry.

Theodore Roethke's poem "My Papa's Waltz" I see as a positive poem.

The first thing that strikes me is the poem's rhythm, written in iambic trimeter. The beat of stressed syllables creates the lilting rhythm of a waltz. This means that there is a stress on every other syllable. Replacing the words, one might repeat the pattern with ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM—it is the same pattern of rhythm, or beats, for each line of every stanza.

Another thing that I find so pleasant about this poem is the imagery the author creates with his use of sensory details—these are details that create a vivid image in the reader's mind. Images that stand out are "whiskey on your breath," "make a small boy dizzy," "romped until the pans," and "Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt." We can imagine the father's work takes him out of doors: the father's hand "battered on one knuckle" and "a palm caked hard by dirt." These images are especially dear: the father works hard—perhaps from sunup until sundown, so there may be little time for the two to spend together. We can also estimate the boy's age: his ear only comes up as far as the buckle on his father's belt—he's young. That his father's missteps cause his ear to scrape on the buckle seems to worry the son not at all.

Diction or word choice is important in creating the feeling or the mood of the poem. For example, "romped" is a word used to refer to playful movement. And rather than saying that his mother was frowning at them as they rattled the dishes and the pans, the poet chooses a gentler way to present the image:

My mother’s countenance   

Could not unfrown itself. (7-8)

This does not feel like a scolding from the mother: my thought is that it is her job to frown as they play because carrying on in the house is something a mom will generally forbid. However, in this moment though she does frown, she does not tell them to stop.

It's is also important to note the rhyme scheme. Because poems were always originally written to be read aloud, a great deal of this poem's beauty comes from its sound. This is found first in the meter or rhythm of the poem, and secondly in the rhyme that occurs at the end of the poem's lines.

The pattern of rhyme is indicated by the letters A-B. "A" represents the sound in the last word of first and third lines, and a different rhyme ("B") is found in the last word of the second and fourth lines of each stanza (or set of four lines). So, "breath" and "death" rhyme, as do "dizzy" and "easy." The rhyme may not always be perfect, as seen in the next stanza, with "pans" and "countenance." This is called "near rhyme" because the words are very similar in sound. The rhyme creates once more a sense of gentle "horsing around," as is felt in the rhythm of a waltz.

The final image of the poem is that of the boy "still clinging" to his father's shirt. It may be literally that he clings, but it may also reflect that the youngster does not want this rare and wonderful time spent with his dad to end.

For me, this poem is extremely positive.