Analysis of the Poem "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke
Theodore Roethke and A Summary of My Papa's Waltz
My Papa's Waltz is one of Theodore Roethke's best known poems. At first glance it appears to be a simple four stanza work but a closer look at these 16 lines will reveal much more.
This analysis will help you to understand just why this poem has stood the test of time. Although it's aimed at students, lovers of poetry will benefit from this close up look too.
Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) was born and grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, eventually going on to Harvard and then into teaching poetry in Washington. He had several bouts of depression and mental instability during the 1930s but eventually overcame them.
His poetry borders on the confessional but isn't in the same league as say, Robert Lowell or Anne Sexton. You'll find a more lyrical approach to life with some of his work. It has a warmth and a charm that offsets the darker elements.
His father had a horticultural business and many poems reflect Roethke's interest in the greenhouses he worked in when a boy. The greenhouse poems so called include My Papa's Waltz.
Towards the end of his life Roethke became one of the most popular poets of his generation.
It's important to read through a poem slowly to begin with, taking care with rhythm and any difficult words. You may need to read through at least three times before starting any serious analysis. Make notes as you go along just in case you forget something important.
As you read what sort of rhythm do you get a sense of? Does it tie in with the title? Which words are stressed and which not?
This is a snapshot of life from the mind of a child and conveys a sense of fun and menace at the same time. The dance is a waltz so it has a lilting, regular feel to it, almost lighthearted. But the child is fearful of the father's strength, he can smell the liquor on his breath. This is not positive yet a father dancing with his son should be an uplifting experience.
The mother's presence is important, she provides a contrast to the powerful, near out of control father. There's a hint of domestic chaos in the poem and the reader is compelled to try to work out whether this is a good or a bad thing.
After reading this poem what sort of feeling are you left with? Are you happy for the boy who is dancing with his whiskey drinking father? Or do you fear for both him and his mother? The poem leaves the reader asking questions despite the regular rhythm and simple form of the poem.
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.
Is this a positive or a negative kind of poem? What sort of feelings are aroused when you read through each stanza?
You could argue that this poem has a playful, carefree sort of atmosphere. The child is dancing with his father in the house just before bedtime. Words like romped and waltzed add to the informality. Surely this would be a scene of joy and happiness?
The answer is yes and no. There's an ambiguity built up in the poem so that, on the one hand this is a light and frolicking poem, yet there's darkness and uncertainty too. The child hangs on to the whiskey drinking father like death, and the father's dirty hand beats time on his son's head. Not an orthodox word to use in this context.
In this poem you'll find assonance - repeated use of the same vowel sounds (still/clinging),and also in the lines:
With a palm baked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
The mother's contrasting expression is apparent in the use of the words countenance and unfrown, with their rounded, long vowel sounds.
Consonance, when final consonants match, occurs in such words as breath/death, knuckle and buckle, shirt and dirt and shelf/itself. This helps bring home the idea of the seriousness of the situation as the boy is waltzed round the room by his father. Knuckle and buckle are hard, aggressive words, breath and death suggest begnnings and end of life, shirt and dirt related to work and masculinity.
Internal slant rhymes exist (romped/from/mother's/unfrown) and one use of simile (like death). Enjambment occurs in every stanza.
You can learn more about these terms here.
The poem has a regular and full rhyme scheme, abab, with an exception in the first stanza. Did you spot it? The word dizzy isn't a full rhyme with easy. This is a slant (or half) rhyme because only the end syllables sound the same.
Do you think the rhyme scheme helps the poem? You could argue that yes, it does. If the poem is about a dance that has a regular patterned rhythm to it - the waltz is one of the most rhythmical forms of dance - then having each stanza 'closed' with a rhyme helps the idea of a fixed pattern of movement.
There are several themes threading through each other.
- parental issues - note the tension between the father and mother. The man is hard working, wants a bit of fun with his son, yet when the domestic scene becomes messy, the mother becomes disgruntled, perhaps a little angry.
- alcohol - the father is obviously drunk and instils in his son a sense of fear. The waltz somehow manages to contain the drunken man's energy but there is the idea that things could get out of control.
- security - the child in the poem 'hung on like death' making us think that the father figure is all powerful. Later on the child is 'still clinging' to the father's shirt as they go dancing off to bed.
What about the poet's choice of words for this poem? From the outset we know that this is a child speaking to the father about the smell of alcohol (whiskey, your breath). If life is a dance then this child is having a tough time because the dance was not easy - note the lack of a contraction which makes the line more formal.
In stanza 2 romped implies a sense of fun but lacking control because things fall from the shelf as a result of the dance and mother isn't well pleased. The use of the word countenance and unfrown is unusual. The former refers to the mother's facial expression, the latter isn't a proper word.
Why did the poet choose these words? Was it to highlight the contrast in behaviour of the mother and father?
The words battered and scraped, beat and hard suggest the father's rough handling of the boy but these are neutralised almost by the use of waltzed, which implies some sort of carefree innocence.
My Papa's Waltz whilst not a complex poem in form or diction can give rise to points of debate and interest. It's basically offering two options:
- this is an innocent look back at a lighter moment in domestic life from the perspective of a child somewhat in awe of their father.
- this is a prelude to something more sinister. The father is a drunkard who doesn't know how to control himself and who is threatening to the home life.
I think this poem works because the rhythm of the waltz and the ambiguity are maintained throughout; we empathise with the clinging child who is roughly handled by the drunken father. Yet within that dance is a hint of desperation and a whole load of fear, carried by short lines, enclosed within easy rhyme.
Poet Reads My Papa's Waltz
Theodore Roethke - Published Poetry Books
Open House 1941
The Lost Son 1948
Praise to the End 1951
The Waking 1953
Words for the Wind 1957
I am! Says the Lamb 1961
The Far Field 1964
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
© 2015 Andrew Spacey