Free «My Papa’s Waltz» Essay

My Papa’s Waltz

“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke is a rather ambiguous poem, and its interpretation depends on the reader’s personal experience. On one hand, the poem mirrors the life story of a typical small boy, who suffers from his drunk father’s abuse but still continues loving him regardless of all his deeds and behavior. On the other hand, if one considers the fact that, in 1948, when the poem was written, it was absolutely normal for hard-working class to relax after a long working day having a drink or two, the father’s behavior would be considered as a typical display of relaxation and affection to his little son rather than abuse. Nevertheless, it seems more likely that in Roethke’s narrative, closed-form ironic poem, the speaker tells a painful story taken from his childhood, which was marked by his father’s hard physical work, alcohol addiction, and domestic abuse as a means of giving an outlet to his permanent tiredness.

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From the title of the poem and first stanza, the reader understands that a little son is dancing waltz with his drunk father, which is not an easy job:

The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy. (1-4)

Obviously, the boy dislikes the smell of whiskey, and it can be reasonably assumed that “waltzing is not easy” exactly because the father is drunk, which implies that is it difficult for him to control his movements. However, the boy “hung on like death,” which can make the reader think that the son had no other choice but to continue dancing with his father as if he was fulfilling the father’s drunken whim. Since one of the meanings of the phrasal verb “hang on” is defined as “to continue with effort; persevere,” the phrase “hung on like death” may infer that the son must overcome his disgust at his drunk father and simply obey his desires.               

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The second stanza intensifies the reader’s impression that the father is drunk and moves rather awkwardly: “We romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf” (lines 5-6). The verb “romp,” which means “to play or run about wildly, boisterously, or joyfully” points out that the dad’s waltz is nothing but a drunkard’s revelry. Besides, it is common knowledge that a drunk person becomes very happy, active, and very often causes a mess. Typically, drunkards’ wives, as well as children, suffer from such “happy occasions,” which is also depicted in the poem: “My mother’s countenance / Could not unfrown itself.” Although the mother, in this case, can be dissatisfied merely with the mess in the kitchen, this dissatisfaction may be deeper and refer to a broader context of hatred for drunk people and their behavior in general.  

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The third stanza contains a direct implication proving that the father works with his hands (is a manual worker) and vague hints that he abuses his son:

The hand that held my wrist

Was battered on one knuckle;

At every step you missed

My right ear scraped a buckle. (9-12)

First of all, it should be mentioned that, in a waltz, partners hold each other’s hands not wrists, as in the poem. Secondly, line 12 may not merely indicate that the son is not tall but infer that the father has beaten the son with a belt. Lines 11-12 demonstrate that the boy gets punished for “every step his father misses,” which may stand for his father’s unjust treatment and abuse. Lines 13-14 of the fourth stanza accomplish the father’s image of a manual worker and the depiction of physical abuse: “You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt.” Finally, the reader finds out that the boy still adores his father and does not want to part from him regardless of his “not very kind” behavior: “Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt” (lines 13-14).  

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Although the poem in question can be considered in terms of a paternal game with children, which has nothing to do with violence and abuse, the imagery plunges the reader into a gloomy atmosphere. The gustatory and olfactory image of whiskey, auditory image of noise that the son and the father make while dancing and noise of the falling pans, kinetic image of a distorted waltz, tactile image of a buckle, and visual image of dirt instil the impression of some kind of ominous fun. This feeling is intensified by the image of death in the first stanza, which may foreshadow the boy’s death because of physical abuse.

Apart from rich imagery, Roethke uses a vivid figurative language in the poem. In the first place, it is noteworthy to mention the irony as a central element that imbues the whole poem: a waltz, which requires grace and tranquillity, cannot be performed by a drunk person. The poem’s meter significantly contributes to its ironic tone. Written in the form of iambic trimeter with a slant rhyme, “My Papa’s Waltz” reminds a waltz itself because this dance has also three beats. The use of simile and foreshadowing in the third line “But I hung on like death” implies either boy’s affection to his father or son’s fervent attempt to satisfy his father’s drunken whim. Most importantly, this line may predict the tragic outcome of Papa’s violence. Implicit litotes can be elucidated from line 12, in which the son is depicted as small, reaching his father’s belt. The distorted dance itself may refer metaphorically to boy’s distorted childhood, marked by his father’s hard work, violence, and intemperance.

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All things considered, “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke focuses on life of a typical family of his time, with a hard-working father, who would relax taking a drink, helpless mother, and child suffering from a lack of paternal affection and physical abuse. Taking into consideration the fact that Roethke lost his father at the age of fifteen, which was a great shock for him, there is no wonder that the poem is imbued with a distinct feeling of son’s love and deep affection to his father. Even the dark imagery prevailing in the poem cannot subdue this blessed feeling. 

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