Everybody has memories of their childhood, both good and bad, but it is the good ones that many people remember. But that does not rule out the possibility of remembering bad memories because they also bring into a person sad memories they would wish to forget. In the poem, My Papa’s Waltz that is written by Theodore Roethke, a picture of a boy waltzing with his father is created. By the look of things, the story is told by a grown man who has gone back into time to pick an incident from his childhood. The title of the poem summarizes the poem in its entirety because it sets the scene of the poem through a memorable event. Also, the title could be referring to the entire life or relationship between father and son. The first reading of this poem elicits negative feelings, because behind the romping and waltzing there is a hint of violence. In fact, the reader forms the feeling of revulsion, towards two parents who are in the least concerned about the safety of their child because the imagery the poet uses points to that. The mother can be seen as irresponsible for allowing a drunken man to patronize and mistreat their child. The father, on the other hand, comes through as an irresponsible man who comes home drunk and lets his son see him. The poem presents a horrid experience of a child being ill- treated by his father who is tipsy and a mother who is not thrilled with the experience, the speaker tries to beautify and romanticize the waltz but the words speak otherwise.
First speaker tries as much as possible to beautify this experience, but the first impression it creates is that of a child being ill treated by his father. First, the speaker says, “The whiskey on your breath” (Roethke line 1). A drunken father is not a particularly perfect example to a young boy who looks up to him as a father figure. At least, the real-life examples existing in contemporary society support that argument. The image of a drunken man whose breath is laden with the smell of whiskey evokes picture of a bad father figure, and that sets the mood and revulsion for anyone who can relate to such a scenario. Roethke further makes the feeling and attitude tense when he alludes that the smell was strong because “It could make a small boy dizzy” (Roethke line 2). A strong whiskey breath that is capable of making a young boy dizzy aggravates further the negative attitude one may form against the whole scenario.
Also, at the very onset of the poem, the impression that is being created is that of irresponsible adults and especially an abusive father. The speaker goes on to say, “But I hang on like death” (Roethke line 3). That is enough to tell that the child was terrified. Papa is “a figure of terror in his young son” (McKenna 34). The speaker mentions death so that the reader understands the terrible feeling a child develops when they are faced with terror. The waltzing, an experience that is supposed to be fun filled captures a sad moment of death looming and that is an indicator that the waltzing was not at all any fun experience. Even this boy admits that “such waltzing was not easy” (Roethke line 4). The mere mentioning of the word ‘death’ shows how helpless this child had grown because of being handled recklessly and it is as if he was staring death in the face.
It is worth noting that people who are drunk or high on something are always not in control of their actions, and as expected, they can get into brawls of confrontations that might leave them hurt. And true to the speaker, the father is hurt. The speaker says, “The hand that held my wrist/ Was battered on one knuckle” (Roethke line 8- 9). The word “batter” is a pointer to abuse or abusive situations. That sends the bells ringing because one is led to think there is a kind of battering that exists in this home or outside. Perhaps the battering happened as they were ‘waltzing’ or the parents might have been involved in a violent engagement. The father could be engaged in violent behavior because in this case he does not seem like he is playing with the child. At the same time, the word “buckle” (Roethke line 12), could be associated with a belt buckle and that only implies that perhaps the boy was being beaten by the father. After all, it is a common scenario to find a child tightly clinging to their parents when they are being beaten, and that is further strengthened by the assertion the child makes, “You beat time on my head” (Roethke line 13). That could be a pointer to the fact that the father had the habit of beating the child whenever he was drunk.
Again, description the child gives the scenario in this home leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It is expected that the waltzing that is going on here coupled with a drunken man could leave the house in disarray. The speaker describes a mess left behind by the two. The speaker says, “We romped until the pans/ Slid from the kitchen shelf” (Roethke lines 5- 6). One can only imagine a child being beaten until everything falls off from their rightful places. That is ruthless, to say the least. Even worse, if he missed being beaten in the right place them, it is the delicate body parts that were getting bruised. It only means that the ruthless beating was done in such a manner that the father never seemed to care whether he was disciplining his son or battering or abusing him.
The way this child describes this setting describes an even that could rightfully remain in his memory. As of now, he is not a child anymore, but as it is, he is giving the description as if it happened only yesterday. That gives the impression the incident left a major mark in the life of the speaker. The language used by the poet to describe this incident paint a picture of violence, and that implies that the waltz was not a happy one. Also, the words and event creates images of a drunken father, a kitchen in disarray, a mad mother and the grabbing of the child’s arm by the father. They all help create a sad, half affectionate and sardonic feelings. Apparently, it seems as though the speaker is only criticizing his father. He seems to say he was a reckless man who was so brutal.
Fong, Bobby. Notes & Discussions: Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz.” PDF File
McKenna, John. Roethke’s Revisions and the Tone of “My Papa’s Waltz.” PDF File
Roethke, Theodore. “My Papa’s Waltz”. Poetry Foundation. Web. 4th April 2016