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Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz” is shockingly grim. It shows a possibly violent parent “waltzing” his son to sleep. My Papa’s Waltz was first released by Theodore Roethke in 1942, although it was later collected in The Lost Son and Other Poems in 1948. This poem is frequently seen as an autobiographical account of the author’s upbringing. The phrase “caked hard by dirt” may apply to both his character and the terrible life his father led.
About the poet
An American poet by the name of Theodore Huebner Roethke. He is considered one of the most brilliant and significant poets of his period, having received two National Book Awards for Poetry: once in 1959 for Words for the Wind and once posthumously in 1965 for The Far Field. He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954 for his book The Waking. His writing was notable for its introspection, rhythm, and use of organic imagery.
Roethke examines topics of father-son relationships and violence throughout this poem. In the second half, the latter is evident at several memorable moments. It is a portion of their relationships, but not the entire picture. Whatever type of connection they have, it is obvious from the enthuse lines that it is not without its challenges. Their dance is a representation of their complicated relationship, complete with disputes, physical altercations, and divergent outlooks on life.
The whiskey on your breath Could make a small boy dizzy; But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy.
The speaker of “My Papa’s Waltz” describes the sights, sounds, and emotions that the “waltz” caused in the first few lines. He became lightheaded from the whiskey fragrance. He metaphorically spun about the house with his father. The two’s relationship is represented by this “dance.” The son desperately clings to his father, attempting to hang on like death. The use of the word “death” also implies that the father is suffering because of the son’s influence. He might not have fully grasped the nature of their relationship yet. To hold on and support his father through his highs and lows was “not easy.”
We romped until the pans Slid from the kitchen shelf; My mother’s countenance Could not unfrown itself.
The symbolic dance is described in more detail in the second stanza. Moving across the kitchen, the father and son upset the harmony of the space. His mother objected to the entire situation. She tried to “unfrown,” but couldn’t. This implies that while she is accustomed to this turbulent relationship, she disapproves of it.
The hand that held my wrist Was battered on one knuckle; At every step you missed My right ear scraped a buckle.
The third stanza is where it becomes apparent that there is a deeper theme at play. Even now, the dance is not as innocent as it has been up until this point. It sounds like the father is beating his son because of phrases like “battered” and “scraped a buckle.” The son is the victim of violence in this relationship, which exists somewhere.
You beat time on my head With a palm caked hard by dirt, Then waltzed me off to bed Still clinging to your shirt.
The poem “My Papa’s Waltz” comes to a close with the youngster being sent to bed in the fourth and final quatrain. He continues to “cling to” his father’s clothing, refusing to let go and give up the illusion of a relationship they may have. Even with his father “beat[ing] time on” his head, his tenacity is amazing.