Compare and Contrast- "My Papa's Waltz" and “Those Winter Sundays”
Literature often presents valuable insights into human emotions. Especially, poetry has time and again delineated the unfathomable and unresolved conflicts that one many have with, the people they love deeply. In "My Papa's Waltz" written by Theodore Roethke and “Those Winter Sundays” written by Robert Hayden, the narrators each describe their father’s love towards them, by recollecting a brief incident that took place during their childhood. This essay aims to explore the ways in which both the poets elucidate, how the narrators of the poems, by looking back at a seemingly trivial event of their past, realize their fathers’ unconventional yet solid display of love.
The poems’ primary theme is discovery and definition of fatherly love. A father’s traditional role has always been the bread winner of the family, while the mother is entrusted with the nurturing and caring of the child. The fathers depicted in these poems are hard workers, who do tough manual work to feed their family. Both the fathers described through this poem show their love not by physical exhibition like hugging and kissing, or through affectionate words. They instead exhibit their love in unconventional ways. While the father in Roethke’s poem waltz him to sleep, the narrator’s father in Hayden’s poem ensure that the house is warm for his son. Both of them endured hard physical labor, to earn their livelihood and provide care for their family. While Roethke says
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle
With cracked hands that ached
So the narrators understand and appreciate the efforts, their fathers have put to care for their family. They empathize now, years later after the incident, the physical strain their fathers had undergone to keep them comfortable.
The poems differ in terms of the narrators’ reaction to their father’s love. Hayden, in his adulthood, realizes that all the external toughness of his father has indeed masked the unflinching love he had inside.
What did I know, what did I know
Of love's austere and lonely offices?
On retrospect, he comprehends the true meaning of love, and regrets the fact that he had not known it earlier. However, when he was young it is clear that he did not bond well with his father. He says that he spoke ‘indifferently’ to his father, which proves that he was cold and distant in his relationship with his father, who went out of the way to keep his son comfortable, by polishing his shoes and driving out the cold from the house. He says, “No one ever thanked him”, regretting his blindness towards his father’s affection. Roethke’s narrator, on the other hand, seemed to have cherished his father despite all his faults. He hung on to him like death and went off to bed still clinging on his shirt. While his reaction to the Waltz show put up by his father is ambivalent, he still loved his father and yearned to be near him.
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt
Though both poems talk about father-son bonding which is a soulful subject, the poets create a brooding and violent backdrop for the events narrated, through their choice of words and diction. Hayden says there was always a gloomy tension that lingered in his house.
“Fearing the chronic angers of that house”.
The phrase ‘chronic anger’ in all possibility refers to his father’s emotions, as these words follow his action of calling everyone in the morning. So, there is a possibility that the narrator feared the temper of his father. The very end of the poem which talks about his father’s ‘lonely offices’ are further gloomy phrases, which accentuates the loneliness felt by his father who loved his son without expecting anything in return, but was not appreciated for it.
“My Papa’s Waltz” on the other hand, though seems like a happy poem about a father and son’s merry dance, has disturbing phrases strewn in between, which has given rise to multiple interpretations over the years. For example, the father beats time on the head of his son, his breadth smells of whiskey, and each time the son missed a step his ear scraped a buckle.
“You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt”
On first reading, sometimes this poem looks more like a child abuse poem. However, the scene described is a friendly albeit rough dancing which makes the mother frown (note that she does not interfere though), and the son clearly hung on to his father both literally and figuratively. These gloomy backdrops highlight both the physical strain underwent by the fathers to earn their livelihood, and the rough and tough way in which they exhibited their emotions to their sons.
Both the speakers, in the poems of our discussion, have conflicting emotions towards their fathers. They love and admire them, but at the same time they have a certain fear lingering at the back of their hearts, instigated by the toughness or sternness of their fathers. While narrator in”Those winter Sundays” talk about his father, Roethke’s narrator talks to his father. Though both reminisce an event from a childhood, one event is a happy and noisy waltz dance performance, while another happens in a gloomy, cold, Sunday morning and is narrated in a resentful tone.
However, basically the poems deal with the same conflict. The speakers try to sort out the nature of their relationship with their fathers. They both have had childhood memories, which are a juxtaposition of love and violence. As an adult, they are trying to bring some mature perspective to the events that occurred years back, and try to gauge a better and probably favorable understanding of their fathers’ love. However, it would be apt to say they are not able to fully reconcile their events of the past, and their feelings towards their father remains ambivalent.
Hayden, Robert. Those Winter Sundays. 1962. Web. 3 March 2014.
Roethke, Theodore. My Papa’s Waltz. 1942. Web. 3 March 2014.