My Papa’s Waltz is an elegiac poem written by Theodore Roethke to his father whom he had lost at the age of 14. It narrates a nostalgic event showing spiritual and physical relationship between father and son. The rhythmical steps of the poem are harmonious, having 16 lines of Iambic Trimeter (ABAB) rhyme scheme. The poem has a musical beat where every line has a three beat scheme, and even the title matches with this scheme.
The poem reflects a wide range of themes including love, which the son has towards his father, violence towards the child through his father, life of a family living together and having a nice family time together, death, mental and physical states of people as the father was drunk and not in his control, parents’ power over children because the child was being put to sleep as per routine though he did not approve of it and clung onto his father.
The poem revolves around a family of three, a mother, father and son where the father returns from work all drunk. The word ‘whiskey’ is a sign of embarrassment for his son who feels dizzy upon smelling it in his father’s breath. The speaker is a small boy (the poet) who is narrating his father’s strange dance movements ‘waltzing’, which were not easy for him to do. The entire incident takes place in the kitchen and portrays a happy time spent between father and son. The simile used in the line 3, ‘But I hung on like death’ gives a paradoxical meaning. On one hand it shows a happy imagery of a father and son dancing whereas on the other hand the word ‘death’ gives the feeling of unhappiness on behalf of the child.
The mother’s frown portrays her feeling of displeasure with the situation of the father who is indulged in a boisterous dance with his young son-yet she tolerated the mess in the kitchen as though she was scared of her drunken husband who was out of control. Maybe by observing that her son was enjoying the romping with his father, she watched them quietly.
In line 9, the son addresses the father differently by using the words ‘the hands’ instead of ‘your hands’ that is switching from second person to third person. This demonstrates that his approach has changed; furthermore, words like ‘battered on one knuckle’ show violent stances on one hand but also demonstrates the father’s uphill struggle due to which he got his knuckles scratched.
The last stanza shows the aggressive attitude of the father towards the son, who gets hurt inadvertently or it could be because of the difference of height between them, but still the son does not speak up as he appears to be scared of his drunken father. During the waltz with every lapse the buckle of the father’s belt scrapes the son’s ears, of which the father was unaware. The words ‘belt’ and ‘buckle’ also relate to the environment which shows cruelty of fathers during that era. The dance, on one hand, symbolizes the father and son’s happiness whereas on the other hand the missing steps and injuring the son with his belt shows signs of cruelty. This is a metaphor showing father’s mistakes in real life.
Another violent imagery is found in the word ‘beat’ used in line 13, which has an underlying meaning- that the father uses tricks to put his son to bed. The son clinging on to his shirt shows signs of love that he has for the father. This shows as a child he stayed indoors due to some illness and so he grew stronger relationship with his father.
After reading the poem the readers may develop different points of views of child abuse, however, in my point of view the poet Roethke has used brilliant and talented ways to evoke strong sentiments though they may seem contradictory. The poem portrays father and son having fun waltzing by the use of terms that indicate a different tone like ‘death’, ‘the battered knuckle’, ‘scraped’, ‘beat’ and so on. The affectionate approach of the poet by the use of ‘my’ shows his possessive nature of a joyous and whirling childhood. To sum up, the poem seems to be a shared, realistic moment of joy in a family.
Roethke, Theodore. My Papa's Waltz: American Literature Since the Civil War. The Mcgraw- Hill Companies, Inc. 2011. Pg. 302. 11 August. 2012.