My Papa's Waltz Themes

  • In "My Papa's Waltz," Theodore Roethke examines the complicated relationship between a father and son. On one hand, the poem's speaker loves and admires his father, his male role model. On the other, he fears his father, a drunk, who careens around the house, swinging the speaker around in increasingly dangerous ways.
  • The speaker's relationship with his father is informed by their family's dynamics. The mother, described only as a frowning woman, stands off to the side, allowing the father to waltz their son around the house. This suggests not only that the father is the head of the household but that the mother takes a subservient role in their family.
  • Masculinity is one of the major themes in "My Papa's Waltz." 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 (through dance). The speaker looks up to his father for these reasons, but he also expresses fear during the rough and sometimes painful dance, during which he clings to his father for dear life. 

Themes and Meanings

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...

(The entire section is 781 words.)