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Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke

Introduction and Text of "My Papa's Waltz"

In Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz," the speaker employs the 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. Even so, the total description of the activity suggests that the two dancers were experiencing a good time. In addition to the metaphor of the waltz, the poem engages four other poetic devices:

  1. Rime scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GHGH.
  2. Rhythm: Iambic trimeter.
  3. Simile: "I hung on like death."
  4. Hyperbole (Exaggeration): The simile "I hung on like death" is also hyperbole. Another hyperbole is "We romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf."

Other than the metaphoric waltz and the four devices listed above, the poem remains fairly literal. The theme is one of nostalgia, featuring an adult man looking back at a pleasant moment in his life—a playful time he experienced with his father.

(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.")

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.

"My Papa's Waltz" read by Theodore Roethke

Commentary

While this poem remains fairly literal, employing a minimum of poetic devices, it does, however, engage an extended, ironic metaphor of the gentle dance known as the "waltz," to describe the playful, roughhousing the father and son engage in the evenings after the father returns home from work.

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 a recurring event from his childhood. The singular event of roughhousing with his father in the poem likely represents the incident that happened often. The father and son might have engaged in this metaphoric waltz virtually 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 tingeing his appellation of the dance with a bit of irony.

The speaker reports that the play—the roughhousing he is calling 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 fellows continues with such zeal that it causes the kitchen utensils to slide from the shelves—likely an exaggeration but an effective one to communicate the rambunctiousness of the "waltz." The boy observes that his mother seems to watch with approval but all the while maintains 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, and especially mothers, who likely prefer to keep a quieter, gentler home atmosphere.

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 postmodernist misreading of this playful act by "growing numbers of students as well as some scholars" continues to interpret this belt-buckle encounter as a beating, but taking note of the actual language reveals that that interpretation is grossly inaccurate.

For example, note that the speaker says his "ear scraped a buckle," not that the buckle was brought in contact with force against the ear. And to beat the boy with the belt, the father would have to remove the belt from his pants, which he clearly does not do.

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, likely outdoors much of the time, instead of serving in an office in some legal, medical, or financial capacity.

Those aforementioned growing numbers of students and scholars interpret the father’s battered knuckle as a sign of his penchant for fighting, but the speaker does not imply any such thing; he is making an innocent observation that simply implies that the father’s hands are laboring hands.

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.

In the final scene 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. Again, those misinterpreting the events see this "tapping" as battering, taking the term "beating" out of context.

There is a great deal of difference between "beating time on a head" and "beating a head"—somewhat like the difference between lightning bug and lightning. And 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.

The son is likely a bit reluctant to have the playfulness and time with his father come to an end. Clinging to his father’s shirt can be read as clinging to the father, his affection, and their lovely time together dancing their ironic waltz.

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.

The choice of a "waltz"—a gentle dance—remains an important, overlooked clue that this poem is expressing a pleasant experience. The man is looking back at his childhood, recalling a time of affection and roughhousing fun he had with his father.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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