What is the tone of Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz"? Does the narrator fear or love his father?

Quick answer:

In "My Papa's Waltz,” the tone is unsettling but also touching. Roethke’s poem opens with a menacing undertone and image, yet the tone can also be playful, as Roethke reveals that the father and son are dancing around before bed. The narrator seems to fear his father but also loves him.

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Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa's Waltz” describes a nightly dancing ritual shared by the young son and his father. The poem’s tone seems ominous and anxiety-provoking, as the father obviously has been drinking:

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy.

This opening suggests that the father is so inebriated that his little, vulnerable child is overpowered by the scent of alcohol. The reader wonders if the child will be abused by his father. The next two lines first intensify the threat of violence before undercutting the tension somewhat by explaining what the two characters are doing:

But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

The narrator appears to be holding onto his father for dear life in order to avoid being dropped and injured; then the reader realizes that they are dancing. In the next stanza, the poem’s tone becomes somewhat playful and mischievous:

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The father and son are roughhousing so much that they cause pans to slide off the shelf. They make a somewhat naughty pair as the boy’s mother stands off to the side, frowning with disapproval. She is an outsider to the father and son’s private dance.

An undertone of violence returns in the third and fourth stanzas with the following lines:

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt.

These seemingly brutal images—the father’s hand clasping the child’s wrist, the “battered” knuckle, the scraped ear, the father’s beating time on the child’s head—could be seen to signify the family's blue-collar lifestyle. The father is not grabbing his son’s wrist in order to discipline him; he is partnering his son in a dance. Details like the battered knuckle, the large and rough belt buckle, and the dirty palm of a hardworking hand all reveal that the father is a manual laborer. However, these images and choice of words also imply violence, further contributing to the poem's unsettling tone, causing the reader to feel uneasy throughout. Yet at the same time, the reader pictures the son hugging his father closely, his head pressed against the man’s waist.

Throughout the poem the narrator mixes apprehension with affection. He slightly fears but also loves his father, as demonstrated by the poem's final lines. The narrator feels safe as his father ends their dance by tucking him in for the night:

Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

By the end, the boy clearly loves his father. He appears to be clinging onto his father both out of fear and a longing to be with him.

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