Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” is a poem that describes a father beating his son through lyrical compositions that mirror a waltz. While the verses recount the stench of alcohol, the battering of knuckles and the scraping of flesh, the four stanzas are written with an alternate rhyme scheme (abab cdcd efef ghgh) in iambic trimeter that gives the poem a beautiful musical cadence. Thus, the poem’s central poetic form is the metaphor comparing the fight between the father and son to a waltz—dancing serves as a symbol of violence. The voice is that of the young boy who is mentioned in the second line of the poem. The voice is reflected in the playful line of “romped until the pans / slid from the kitchen shelf,” and in the mention of his mother’s disapproval in “My mother’s countenance / Could not unfrown itself.”
In the first stanza, the persona delivers the following lines:
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
The poem opens with the sensory image of whiskey on the father’s breath, establishing the father as being in a drunken stupor. In the third line, the simile of “But I hung on like death,” describes the son as clinging to his drunk father despite the foul smell of whiskey, and it also symbolizes two partners holding on to each other while waltzing, which is supported in the metaphor of the fourth line: “Such waltzing was not easy.”
The overall metaphor of the waltz is continued in the third stanza:
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
In this stanza, the persona describes the confrontation through dance-specific diction, such as “held my wrist,” and “At every step.” Thus, the actions are not portrayed as harsh beatings but rather elegant dances. The purpose of this poem is to take a horrific subject, such as a father’s beating of his son, and make it more readable and less sensational. This could even be viewed as a coping mechanism on behalf of the persona since he is taking a traumatic experience and conveying it in a more positive light.
The final stanza completes the overall metaphor of the waltz:
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
The metaphor of “beat time on my head” compares the physical beating to that of a metronome, and “Then waltzed me off to bed,” again compares the actions between father and son to actual dance moves. However, the final line “Still clinging to your shirt” echoes the third line of the first stanza: “But I hung on like death.” Despite being beaten, the son desperately holds on to his father. This suggests the boy still loves his father even though he becomes angry and physical when drinking. It’s significant that the poem concludes with this line because it establishes the conflict the persona feels toward his father—he both loves and fears him. Thus, the tone is somewhat satirical, as the persona mixes resentment with adoration. This is seen in the first stanza, where frightening images of “whiskey on your breath” and “make a small boy dizzy” suggest an inevitable beating. Yet playful diction such as “romp” and “slid” to describe the fight suggests the boy does not harbor hatred towards his father.