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The imagery of the poem “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke conveys the emotions of a boy as he experiences this late night dance with his father. A key to the understanding of the poem comes from the title. It is the father’s waltz and not the son’s dance. The tense of the verbs that are used make it evident that this a look back at a rather unpleasant memory from the boy’s past.
Despite the son’s use as the narrator of the poem, he is only along for the ride. The father’s drinking influences this time that might have been fun for all three of the participants.
What images are conveyed by the poem? Each stanza presents a different part of the complete picture of the father’s dance.
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
The father in his alcoholic exhileration picks up his son and begins a wild romp around the room.
The nose is the first sense that is accosted. The sour smell of whiskey reeks from the father. The boys tries to overlook it but is made dizzy by the pungent odor.
The key to the little boy’s fear comes with the description that he had to hang on for dear life as his father madly scrambled around the kitchen. Furthermore, the boy tells the reader that this waltzing with his father was not easy.
The pair’s cavorting around the room made the pots and pans slide off the shelf. The mother’s observance of the scene tells the real story. She does not come to the aid of her son. She stands there with her countenance dominated by a frown that cannot be erased. Of course, this visual and auditory image brings to the reader more questions. The mother obviously should stop the dance for the boy’s sake. Maybe she knows that she will feel the father’s drunken wrath if she interferes.
This image brings pain to both the boy and the reader. The father holds the boy’s wrist rather than his hand. In addition, the father’s knuckles are battered. The reader wonders if the father has hurt his hand in a fight. Does the boy want to get away and the father has to hold on to him to keep up the dance? In the last image, the boy speaks directly to the father and tells him that he is hurting him with his belt buckle. Every time he stumbles the boy’s ear is scraped.
While the pair waltz around the room, the father’s dirty hand beats out a tempo on the boy’s head. Not much fun in that image. At last, the father dances the boy into his bed while the boy still clings onto the father’ shirt to keep from falling.
The images in the poem convey the emotions that the boy feels as his father seems to not care whether the boy enjoys the dance or not. The word abuse comes to mind with the picture of the boy being wildly flung around the room. In addition, this may be the reason that the mother cannot stop the dance. She may also have felt the pounding of the rhythm of the father’s hand.
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