My Papa's Waltz Themes
The main themes in "My Papa's Waltz" are parents and children and masculinity.
- Parents and children: The speaker both admires and fears his father, who is both a role model for the speaker and a source of danger. This apparent ambivalence reflects the oftentimes conflicted emotions of children towards their parents.
- Masculinity: A big, hard-drinking man, the speaker's father embodies traditional masculinity with his roughness and his indirect way of expressing his affection for his son. The speaker looks up to his father for these reasons, but he also expresses fear during the rough and sometimes painful dance.
In “My Papa’s Waltz,” Roethke unites two of his more important themes—his attempt to understand his relationship with his father and his use of the dance as a metaphor for life itself.
Roethke’s father, Otto, was a person who enjoyed the outdoors and the pursuits usually associated with masculinity: sports, hunting, and fishing. Like most fathers, he wanted his son to be like him, but it was clear very early in Theodore’s life that he could not and would not follow in his father’s footsteps. For example, Theodore subscribed to a poetry journal when he was in the seventh grade. In a pattern common in many families, Otto Roethke loved his son but could not approve of his path in life; Theodore loved his father but was unable to demonstrate that love in ways that his father could understand. Worse, Otto died while Theodore was still a teenager, so the father never learned what a leading role in his chosen field the son would play—nor did Theodore have a chance during his father’s lifetime to resolve the differences between them.
Much of Roethke’s mature work embodies his attempt to sort through this relationship and, ultimately, end it, so that the poet could be free to become not merely the son of his father but himself. “The Lost Son,” which many critics regard as Roethke’s breakthrough work (in which he first asserts himself most forcefully in his own poetic manner), concerns his attempts to come to grips with the death of his father. Although the father has died, it is the son, unsure of his identity, who is lost. Ironically, in trying to become free of the memory of his judging father, Roethke discovers how much like the older man he is.
The point of connection between the two is the greenhouse and the world of plants that Roethke’s father nurtured. Here the tender side of Otto’s nature asserted itself, for it takes patience and loving care to raise plants; they will not grow at the point of a gun or as a result of threats. “My Papa’s Waltz” significantly occurs after a long day’s work at the greenhouse, where the father has developed a “handbattered on one knuckle” and “a palm caked hard by dirt.”
The father has fulfilled himself in his work and wants to show his love for his son, but only after taking a drink (or three) to unwind. Like many men, he finds it difficult to express love, even in a physical way, without first becoming someone else through the aid of drink. Men must still be men, so the manner of expression of that love is a roughhouse “romp,” not a hug or a kiss. Theodore, who later failed during the hunting and fishing trips in which his father made him participate, does not make a very good dancing partner, either. He is not a willing dancer, but is dragged along; a child, he has no choice but to acquiesce.
The poem also suggests that the “waltz” may be the father’s unconscious way of punishing his son, of demonstrating that, even in the feminine and romantic world of the dance, a man must be tough. Is it really necessary to beat time on the boy’s head? Does he understand that he may be hurting his child with the scraping buckle? Whatever his intentions, the waltz becomes a seal on the day’s activities, a last bit of interaction before the boy is put to bed.
In Roethke’s later poetry, he develops the metaphor of the dance as a symbol for life lived to the fullest. To...
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Roethke, a beautiful dance most of all symbolizes love, fulfillment, and union with the rest of life, as in “I Knew a Woman,” “The Waking,” and “Four for Sir John Davies.” The first appearance of a dance in Roethke’s poetry is “My Papa’s Waltz,” and, significantly, because the dance is between the poet and his father, the dance itself is unlovely and, to the child, frightening, and its meaning is ultimately ambiguous. The ambiguity extends to the rest of the poem. Does the child’s mother frown because of the father’s tipsiness, the destruction wreaked by the dance, the violence of the dance itself, or the fact that it is imposed upon the child? The welter of meanings and associations means that each reader must judge the poem for himself or herself, perhaps drawing on memories of adult expressions of love that were too strong for a child. This confusion also keeps the poem fresh and contributes to its continued life.