My Papa's Waltz Summary

In "My Papa's Waltz," Theodore Roethke describes the beauty and the danger of a game he played with his father as a child. Roethke's father Otto would pick Roethke up, spin him around, and waltz all through the house. Unfortunately, Roethke's father was always drunk when they danced, and this lent the waltz an element of danger.

  • In the first stanza, the speaker, a young version of Roethke, describes how his father's whiskey breath "could make a small boy dizzy." The speaker "hung like death," clinging to his father both out of love and out of fear of being dropped.
  • In the second and third stanzas, the waltz moves into the kitchen, where it becomes so raucous that it knocks pans from the shelves. The speaker, still a little boy, is so short that he only comes up to his father's waist and scrapes his ear on his father's belt buckle.
  • In the final stanza, the speaker describes how his father "beat time" on his head. This may or may not refer to an actual beating. The speaker's father then waltzes him upstairs and puts him safely to bed.

Summary

In the first stanza, the speaker of the poem describes how the whiskey on his father's breath "could make a small boy dizzy." It's clear that the speaker is remembering a time when his drunken father spun him around as a child. This spinning is part of a game Roethke himself often played with his father, but in retrospect the dance seems dangerous and unsettling to readers. The speaker "hung on like death," clinging to his father, perhaps in fear. "Such waltzing was not easy," the speaker says, using understatement to great effect.

In the second stanza, the dance moves into the kitchen, where the speaker and his father "romped until the pans/ Slid from the kitchen shelf." The word "romped" has two meanings: one, the innocent if energetic form of play children often engage in, and two, the violent "romp" of a man too drunk to be gentle with his son. Meanwhile, the speaker's mother stands off to the side, watching the two men waltz. The speaker describes how her mouth "could not unfrown itself," but he makes no mention of her trying to stop the dance.

In stanza three, the speaker describes two wounds. First, he mentions a scrape on one of his father's knuckles, the origin of which the speaker never reveals. The use of the word "battered" to describe the knuckle suggests that the father may have been in a fight, but this is open to interpretation. The speaker then describes how, during the dance, his ear would sometimes scrape against his father's belt buckle. This line serves both as character description (the speaker is a boy so young he comes up only to his father's hip) and as indication to the reader that the boy didn't always like the waltz. In fact, Roethke said he was often frightened by his father's waltzes, even when he was exhilarated by them.

In stanza four, the speaker describes how his father "beat time on [his] head" with a rough, dirty hand. The word "beat" could indicate a violent act, but more likely the speaker's father had no idea that this method of keeping time was causing the speaker pain. Soon after, the father waltzes the speaker off to bed, signaling the end of the dance. In the final line, the speaker describes himself "still clinging to [his father's] shirt," indicating his ambivalent feelings about the dance. On the one hand, he loves his father and clings to him out of love. On the other, he's afraid of the dance, and he clings to his father out of fear of being dropped or hurt. In the end, the reader is left to assume that the speaker went safely to sleep.