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Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz"

Updated on December 12, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Theodore Roethke

Source

A Widely Misinterpreted Poem

Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Walts" is often misinterpreted as a cry of a bitter adult who suffered under the excessiveness of an alcoholic father. However, the playfulness of the relationship between father and son becomes clear with a close reading of the poem

Introduction and Text of "My Papa's Waltz"

In Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz," the speaker employs a metaphor of a "waltz"—likening his roughhousing with his father to that gentle dance. The irony plays off the quality of gentleness because the romping and stomping of the father and son equals a dance anything but gentle but yet providing a good time for two dancers.

In addition to the "metaphor" of the waltz, the poem engages four other poetic devices:

  1. Rime scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GHGH. (Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
  2. Rhythm: Iambic trimeter.
  3. Simile: I hung on like death.
  4. Hyperbole (Exaggeration): The simile "I hung on like death" is also a hyperbole. Probably another hyperbole is "We romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf." Otherwise the poem remains fairly literal.

My Papa’s Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Theodore Roethke reading his poem, "My Papa's Waltz"

Commentary

First Quatrain: A Man Recalling a Childhood Event

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

The speaker in Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" is a man recalling an event from his childhood. The single event of roughhousing with his father in the poem likely represents a recurring incident that happened often. The father and son might have engaged in this metaphoric waltz everyday as the father was returning home from work.

As the title of the poem indicates, the father and son performed a "waltz," but this particular dance was not the gentle glide one usually associates with that term. The father and son are playing and roughhousing. The roughness of this "waltz" implies that the speaker is tinging his appellation of the dance with a bit of irony.

The speaker reports that the play, the roughhousing, the waltz was rather challenging for him as a small boy. His father was tipsy from drinking, and the boy could detect whiskey on the father's breath. Still the boy was able to meet the challenge of this difficult waltz. He kept up with his father by hanging on to him. The playfulness of the dance shows that the two are just having fun.

Second Quatrain: Frowning Approval

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The playful "romp" of the two rowdy males continues with such zeal that they cause the kitchen utensils to slide from the shelves. The boy observes that his mother seemed to watch with approval but all the while maintaining a frown across her face. The nature of the relationship between fathers and sons may not always be clear to onlookers, including other family members.

Third Quatrain: The Challenging Dance

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

As the rough, challenging "waltz" continues, the boy's ear sometimes grazes the father's belt buckle—no doubt a painful part of the dance for the boy, but he continues to hang on.

The speaker reports that his father's hand had a battered knuckle—a crucial image that implies that the father was day laborer, a man who worked with his hands. His collar was definitely blue, not white.

Fourth Quatrain: Clinging to Good Times

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Then, as the dance is coming to a close, the father is keeping the waltz time by tapping on the son's head the meter of the dance. The father's laboring hand is again coming into play—this time the son dramatizes that hand by describing it as "dirt-caked."

Finally, the father is whisking the son off to bed. The son recalls that as the father ends the dance and takes the boy to his room, the lad is still hanging on to the father's shirt—likely a bit reluctant to have the playfulness and time with his father come to an end.

As an adult looking back at his childhood, the speaker has dramatized a vital part of his relationship with his father. The playful but challenging roughhousing they experienced was an important part of the child's life.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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