Theodore Roethke

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Analysis of Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz," including its purpose, meaning, use of imagery, and symbolism


Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" explores the complex relationship between a father and son through the lens of a rough, yet affectionate, dance. The poem's purpose is to convey the blend of love and tension in familial bonds. Using vivid imagery and symbolism, such as "whiskey" and "waltzing," Roethke illustrates the father's flawed but tender nature and the son's mixed emotions.

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What is the purpose of Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" and how does he use imagery and symbolism?

Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” is a poem that describes a father beating his son through lyrical compositions that mirror a waltz.  While the verses recount the stench of alcohol, the battering of knuckles and the scraping of flesh, the four stanzas are written with an alternate rhyme scheme (abab cdcd efef ghgh) in iambic trimeter that gives the poem a beautiful musical cadence. Thus, the poem’s central poetic form is the metaphor comparing the fight between the father and son to a waltz—dancing serves as a symbol of violence. The voice is that of the young boy who is mentioned in the second line of the poem.  The voice is reflected in the playful line of “romped until the pans / slid from the kitchen shelf,” and in the mention of his mother’s disapproval in “My mother’s countenance / Could not unfrown itself.”

In the first stanza, the persona delivers the following lines:

The whiskey on your breath 
Could make a small boy dizzy; 
But I hung on like death: 
Such waltzing was not easy. 

The poem opens with the sensory image of whiskey on the father’s breath, establishing the father as being in a drunken stupor.  In the third line, the simile of “But I hung on like death,” describes the son as clinging to his drunk father despite the foul smell of whiskey, and it also symbolizes two partners holding on to each other while waltzing, which is supported in the metaphor of the fourth line: “Such waltzing was not easy.”

The overall metaphor of the waltz is continued in the third stanza:

The hand that held my wrist   

Was battered on one knuckle;   

At every step you missed 

My right ear scraped a buckle. 

In this stanza, the persona describes the confrontation through dance-specific diction, such as “held my wrist,” and “At every step.”  Thus, the actions are not portrayed as harsh beatings but rather elegant dances. The purpose of this poem is to take a horrific subject, such as a father’s beating of his son, and make it more readable and less sensational.  This could even be viewed as a coping mechanism on behalf of the persona since he is taking a traumatic experience and conveying it in a more positive light.

The final stanza completes the overall metaphor of the waltz:

You beat time on my head   

With a palm caked hard by dirt,   

Then waltzed me off to bed   

Still clinging to your shirt.

The metaphor of “beat time on my head” compares the physical beating to that of a metronome, and “Then waltzed me off to bed,” again compares the actions between father and son to actual dance moves.  However, the final line “Still clinging to your shirt” echoes the third line of the first stanza: “But I hung on like death.” Despite being beaten, the son desperately holds on to his father.   This suggests the boy still loves his father even though he becomes angry and physical when drinking.  It’s significant that the poem concludes with this line because it establishes the conflict the persona feels toward his father—he both loves and fears him. Thus, the tone is somewhat satirical, as the persona mixes resentment with adoration.  This is seen in the first stanza, where frightening images of “whiskey on your breath” and “make a small boy dizzy” suggest an inevitable beating.  Yet playful diction such as “romp” and “slid” to describe the fight suggests the boy does not harbor hatred towards his father. 

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What is the meaning of Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz"?

There will be different reads as to meaning of the poem.  Much of this is based on how individuals interpret that unsettled nature between father and son.  The surface meaning of the poem is that a father and son are sharing a dance, in particular, a waltz.  The father has been drinking and the opening lines indicate this us, and the subsequent stanzas that detail the disorder and occasional misstep in the dancing also relays this.  There is some level of apprehension that the child has towards this dance.  It might be due to the fact that the father is slightly off balance and his coordination has been impaired.  Others could suggest that this is the undertone of abuse which is present. The difference in perception here lends itself to divergent symbolic meanings.  Some might see the story presented as an example of child abuse brought on by alcoholic consumption and that the narrative rendered is one of torment and mistreatment.  Another viewpoint is that this is a tender memory of father and son, who share a moment that lingers in the son's mind.  Details in the poem help to support either read.  For example, the mother's countenance in the second stanza could reflect the upturning of pots and pans in the kitchen or could mirror the feelings she has towards the father abusing his son by forcing him in this dance.  The scratch on the ear could be from abuse or scraping against the buckle and the description of the father's knuckles could be incidental and not abuse.  In some ways, how we, as readers, understand the poem might reflect more about our own backgrounds than the poem, itself.

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What is the meaning of Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz"?

"My Papa's Waltz" is an intriguing poem, partly because of its ambiguity. It can be read as both a story of a child terrorized by and abusive father and a child having a playful romp with his daddy before bedtime.

Whenever my students read this work, they initially disagree on which interpretation is more correct. One must consider the diction (or word choice) very carefully when deciding how to read this work.

A good mnemonic device (or memory trick) for analyzing poetry is the TPCASTT system.

Title: Ponder the title before reading the poem

Paraphrase: Translate the poem into your own words

Connotation: Contemplate the poem for meaning beyond the literal level

Attitude: Observe both the speaker’s and the poet’s attitude (tone).

Shifts: Note shifts in speakers and attitudes or form

Title: Examine the title again, this time on an interpretive level

Theme: Determine what the poet is saying

After looking at all of these aspects of the poem, most come to read it as a boy's recollection of his father's playful rough-housing--perhaps a bit too roughly after a few drinks, but not in anger. The word "romped" indicates a playful nature, despite boys scraping against his father's buckle or the mother's stern frowning at the pots and pans being knocked out of place. And the last two lines, "Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt," show that the boy was enjoying the staggering dance, since he still clings to his father when it is over.

It's important when reading ambiguous poems that you carefully weigh all the possible interpretations before deciding what they mean to you.

For more in depth discussion of "My Papa's Waltz" check the links below. The one to from enotes Salem on Literature series has some information about Roethke's relationship with his own father that might have influenced his writing of this poem.

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