Many students believe this poem at first sight to be a poem about domestic abuse. But, it is important to take the era in which the poem was written as a part of the context. In the 1940s, we had much less comprehension of the effects of alcohol. Similarly, spanking or beating would have been discipline, the issue of "abuse" was rarely tracked or cited.
This poem more accurately portrays the problem the father has with balancing work and family. Fortunately for the reader, whether a child or parent, this is a highly relatable issue. Readers can tell that this is the issue because the father brings home evidence of his work still on his body in the lines:
The hand that held my wrist/Was battered on one knuckle; (lines 9-10)
With a palm caked hard by dirt (line 14)
Roethke's father happened to work at a greenhouse. That is where the dirt and scrape on the knuckle came from.
Further, the references to alcohol demonstrate the effort a parent makes to shift between life's roles. It is difficult to recover from the anxiety of work in order to entertain young children upon a return to the home. This struggle is noted in the child's expression of the tipsy nature the father has after the evening's libations:
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy (lines 1-2)
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle (lines 11-12)
The effort to create a dance comes through in the diction
of every step
, romped, beat time,
and waltzed me off to bed.
The mother disapproves of this effort of the father, but perhaps she doesn't understand the transition he has to make because in the 40s she may not have been a working woman.
The negative connotations of alcohol and work contrast the playful connotation
of the dance. Many of the images
can be taken in two ways. For example, the beat[ing of] time on my head
can be taken as if it was abusive, or as if it was fun. Similarly, the dance that could cause pots and pans to fall may have been tremendously violent, or incredibly hilarious for the child. The mother may have been unable to turn her frown upside down because she was angry at the drunkenness or at her kitchen being a dance floor.
The tone of the work can be either heart-warming or disconcerting or both.