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My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke March 30, 2010

Posted by vishuseng1 in : Uncategorized , trackback

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.

Analysis: This is perhaps the most famous and intriguing poems that Theodore Roethke has published. Roethke, as the speaker, is reflecting on his childhood with his father, who seems to have been a drinking man. This poem is intriguing because it has many different interpretations, one of a happy relationship between a father and son and the other could be a hidden message of parental abuse. In my opinion, the main theme of this poem is the love that Roethke and his father shared in Roethke’s youth. The dominant imagery, simple diction, and tone of the poem gave me the impression of the love between the father and son, not of an abusive relationship. The simple layout of the four line stanzas, and the rhyme scheme unite to make the poem a soothing, simple, and elegant read. In addition to the use of simple diction, the use of metaphor describes the scene and allow the reader to paint a clear picture of the story in their minds. The poem is more narrative as it presents a childhood story of a father and son dancing before the child is to sleep. Some have thought of abuse because the lines, “hung on like death”, and “beat time on my head” might even lead the reader to think the father is abusive to the boy. This poem is truly about a father that comes home after a hard day’s work drunk and happy and that starts to dance the waltz with his son. Also if the child was being abused then his mother would have reacted more harshly than just a frown, “my mother’s countenance could not unfrown itself” (Line 7-8). Roethke’s father Otto, might have had rough and dirty hands because he owns and works in the greenhouses “With a palm caked hard by dirt” (Line 13), not because he had a bad relationship with his son. In line 15, “still clinging to your shirt” Theodore is holding onto Otto’s shirt because he doesn’t want to go to bed and because he wants continue to play with his father. The poem gives an image of a strong bond of love and playfulness between Otto and Theodore, but the poem could still be interpreted in many different ways and that is the beauty of poetry. The fact that one line can be thought of differently than someone that has a previously set image of it.


# Jane Hazle - June 5, 2010

You provide plausible evidence for your conclusions regarding how to interpret the father/son relationship in this poem. Good engagement with the poem–the diction and syntax employed by Roethke are utilized effectively in your analysis. Any scholarly source?