“My Papa’s Waltz” is a controversial poem written by Theodore Roethke in 1948. Generally one takes either of two views concerning the true meaning of “My Papa’s Waltz”. One, that the poem is a metaphor for child abuse or two, it is an endearing poem about a child and his love for his adoring father. Being of the second school of thought myself, it seems clear that Roethke uses a playful clever tone to convey the love and affection the speaker feels for his father, painting an endearing picture within “My Papa’s Waltz.” To grasp the second concept, one must take a deeper analytical view to be able to explain away some of the darker imagery that Roethke uses. An examination of poetic elements, including speaker, persona, tone, rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, imagery, irony, and metaphor will help to decipher the deeper meaning of the poem and come to appreciate how beautiful it really is.
The speaker, Roethke, takes on a persona of a small boy. However, I believe this poem, though written through the eyes of a small boy, is set in past tense, being retold by an older boy or young man. The evidence in Roethke’s word choice: hung, romped, missed, and waltzed clearly showing that this had taken place in the past. This could have very well been written in reflection of Roethke’s own relationship with his father. Roethke’s biography states he “was strongly influenced by his father Otto, and his father’s brother” (341); undoubtedly that special bond guided Roethke’s future life as a poet.
The tone, though at first read, could imply a dark abusive experience for the small boy, demands a more insightful look. Upon re-examining the poem, one can see that Roethke uses some kind expressions and endearing gestures to explain away the darker under-tone first found. For example, in the phrase “hung on like death” (3) the small boy is enjoying his time and attention with his father that he could not let go. “We romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf” (5,6) explains they were so involved in their spirited dancing that the pots and pans slid off the shelf. The last two lines of the poem, “Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt,” (15,16) really signifies the love and affection they both had for one another. The little boy not wanting the fun to end and the father continuing to play with him until the little boy was obviously too tired to continue.
Rhyme and rhythm play off one another so perfectly in order to convey Roethke’s ultimate audiological experience. A-B-A-B in a loose, alternating, rhythmic pattern with a four quatrain grouping, sets the clever stage for a perfect waltzing rhythm carried throughout the poem, with Roethke’s usage of stresses and pauses creatively reinforcing the overall tone and meaning of the poem. Within “My Papa’s Waltz” Roethke emphasizes the waltzing rhythm with his three beat stresses, “We ro’mped unti’l the pa’ns / Sli’d from the ki’tchen she’lf;” (5,6); in turn reading the poem in the same 1,2,3 cadence that you would find within a waltz. This could easily go unnoticed unless you have studied music or dance. Nonetheless, one would notice the melodic uniform cadence that it naturally presents as a recognizable tune.
Roethke uses alliteration sparingly to reinforce the rhythmic cadence. A good example would be in line 4, “Such waltzing was not easy” or “My mothers countenance/ could not unfrown itself” (7,8). Alliteration used sparingly in addition to the 1,2,3 waltzing rhythm helped develop the poems overall cadence and audio-logical experience for the reader.
The imagery found within “My Papa’s Waltz” is both figurative and literal. Appealing to our imagination the first stanza, “The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy” (1,2) leads one right away to a very unappealing place with a small boy being exposed to a very inebriated man. Then you have the very playful lines 5 and 6, “We romped until the pans/ Slid from the shelf” further develops the scene that the small boy is playing quite exuberantly with his very drunk father. Roethke does use literal imagery to paint a few very vivid pictures within lines 9 and 10: “The hand that held my wrist/ Was battered on one knuckle.” The father was holding onto the boy’s wrist as he was too small to hold by the hand and it gave him some stability while waltzing him about. Also depicting the condition of his “battered knuckle” was to convey that his father worked hard in their family green house, which was reflective in the condition of his hands.
There is no doubt an ironic tone is present within “My Papa’s Waltz”. An example of both irony and a great simile is found within lines 3 and 4, “But I hung on like death / Such waltzing was not easy.” The simile is presented in that one usually hangs on to life not death. The small boy “hung on like death” as he did not want to ever let his father go figuratively and literally as his father waltzed him about with such vigor that he did not want to fall. The irony is present in line 4, “such waltzing was not easy” when in fact the waltz is a very simple and easy dance with a simplistic 1,2,3 beat to follow.
The underlying metaphor is probably what brings so much controversy to this poem in particular. The waltz is used within the title to set the very first impression of a joyful metaphorical dance just what you expect a waltz to portray. Often after the first read Theodore Roethke’s poem and “the waltz” is quickly perceived to be a metaphor for child abuse. With the many negative terms Roethke uses, whiskey, like death, battered, scraping and beat, one is easily convinced that child abuse is the underlying metaphor. With a deeper analysis, one could find logical ways to explain away the negative connotations, leaving one to understand that this poem is a loving interaction between a father and small son. The father comes home after a long hard day of work and a few drinks at the pub, to be welcomed home by his adoring small son. Eager for his affection the boy joyfully waltz’s with is father. Though the steps are hard and playfully rough, he is eager to please and receive the attention from his father. The waltz is a metaphor for the joyful life experience shared between a small son and his adoring father.
“My Papa’s Waltz” is a complex poem that utilizes the many aspects of poetic language that further develops its deeper meaning. Roethke uses a clever structure and mimics his poetic rhythm and rhyming scheme to heighten the poems overall tone and imagery by repeating the poems metaphor within the audiological structure. Being the controversial poem that it is, using a deeper analytical eye one could argue that the poem is not a sinister dark poem about child abuse but rather a kind and endearing reflection of a joyful waltz a small boy shared with his father.
Roethke, Theodore. “My Papa’s Waltz” Literature and the Writing Process. Ed. Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X Day, and Robert Funk. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice, 2007. 341. Print.