In “My Papa’s Waltz,” Theodore Roethke imaginatively re-creates a childhood encounter with his father but also begins to attempt to understand the meaning of the relationship between them. The poem may be read as a warm memory of happy play, but when one is familiar with the rest of Roethke’s work, a darker view of the event emerges. Although the poem is only sixteen short lines, it is one of Roethke’s most moving and most frequently anthologized poems.
Theodore Roethke was born and grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, where his father and uncle operated a large and successful greenhouse. Sometimes Roethke’s father would stay up late into the night watering and otherwise tending to his plants. After a drink to relax, he would swing his son Theodore around the kitchen in a bearlike dance and then carry him off to bed. Roethke stated in an interview that his father would hook his son’s feet through the father’s rubber bootstraps and, with Theodore’s feet thus trapped, haul the youngster about.
Roethke’s poetic description of this scene conveys both the father’s love for the son and the son’s fear of this overpowering event, a combination which explains why the poem has haunted so many readers. At first the child finds merely the smell of the alcohol on his father’s breath overwhelming, but he endures the experience and hangs on to his father’s shirt: “Such waltzing was not easy.” The “waltz” is so violent that pots...
(The entire section is 449 words.)