Reaction to the Poem "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke

Updated on November 28, 2016

Poetry is open to interpretation

Since poetry is an openly passionate form of expression and every individual is unique in his or her own personal way, one could potentially interpret one poem in more than one way. In Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” I interpreted the author’s overall meaning and general expression of his diction as two or three different ideas. The more times I read the poem, the more I developed a different sense of this deeply strong and emotional piece. I eventually came to a cohesive meaning of the written piece after a few perplexed readings.

In “My Papa’s Waltz,” a young boy reminisces a family memory between himself and his father. Throughout this powerfully written poem, Roethke recollects the enjoyment of his father’s company just before bedtime. In lines 7-8, Roethke does mention a stern mother who does not partake or enjoy the messy rough housing, but I infer Roethke intended this poem for one parent: the father. Another inference that could be made is that the young boy is Theodore Roethke himself.

Read it a few times before making a final assumption

After my first reading of this poem, I thought Roethke portrayed the scenario in a dark, depressed tone. I thought it was about a boy recalling his abusive father. A few specific lines brought me to this conclusion, “The whisky on your breath /Could make a small boy dizzy; /but I hung on like death: /Such waltzing was not easy” (lines 1-4). There were also a few words that lead to the assumption of a much darker meaning behind the poem, such as “death” and “battered.”

With the second reading of “My Papa’s Waltz,” I decided to read the piece out loud with hopes of seeing the poem in a new light. By reading it aloud, I realized this poem seems more like a loving memory between father and son. In “My Papa’s Waltz,” the narrator enjoys the playful fight with his father. The very last stanza helped me to come to this conclusion with, “Then waltzed me off to bed/Still clinging to your shirt” (line 14-15). These two lines helped me to determine the narrator’s state of mind.

Eventually, I put my first interpretation and my second interpretation together to form my final thoughts. In “My Papa’s Waltz,” I believe Theodore Roethke intended the narrator to reminisce about his father who is no longer living. This does seem to be a happy yet sad poem. Roethke intended to portray fond memories. It seems as though Roethke utilizes a few literary devices in order to help the reader better understand that there were some unideal attributes to the narrator’s father. I believe the controversial traits the narrator sheds some light on is the dark or depressive tone that I came across in my first reading. The narrator does seem to excuse or forgive these negative traits throughout the poem. Through symbolism and a skillful use of meter and rhyme, Roethke shares this emotional whirlwind with his readers.

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The literary devices and elements I spotted

One literary convention I thought was the most recognizable is Roethke’s use of symbolism throughout the poem. The waltz is generally danced with two people to a somewhat slow, rhythmic song. In “My Papa’s Waltz,” readers expect to see this cohesive partnership and fundamental relationship between a father and child just by reading the title of this piece. Theodore Roethke compares the definition and general dance of a waltz to the rough housing before bed between a father and son.

Line 14, “With a palm caked hard with dirt,” and lines 9-10, “The hand that held my wrist/Was battered on one knuckle,” lead me to believe that this father was a working man. Roethke used imagery to show his readers that this father may have made some forgivable mistakes, but he worked hard for his family and still came home after a hard night’s work to enjoy a romp with his son. Roethke continues to symbolize this loving memory of a boy and his father by comparing it to a waltz. His diction allowed the reader to imagine this sometimes-too-rough rough housing was a dance between father and son. Roethke referred to specific terms that are used often when it comes to dance. In line 11, Roethke writes, “At every step you missed.” He also made his readers visualize a linked dance between the two with lines, such as “You beat time on my head” (line 13). Symbolism was not the only powerful form of literary conventions that stood out to me in this poem.

Another poetic device that basically screams off of the pages is Roethke’s lyrical use of rhyme and rhythmical use of meter. Contrary to what most people believe, not all poetry is written in rhymes. “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke is written with a specific rhyming scheme. The rhymes help the reader visualize this memory as the waltz Roethke intended to symbolize. (2013) defines a waltz as, “a ballroom dance, in moderately fast triple meter, in which the dancers revolve in perpetual circles, taking one step to each beat” (Waltz). Roethke utilizes his reader’s imagination and basic knowledge of a waltz to create this cohesive dance between the father and son. By using the word waltz, Roethke led his readers to believe this was a unified dance between the two.

The rhythmical use of meter Roethke incorporates in “My Papa’s Waltz” also contributes to the reader’s imagination. Just like Roethke’s consistent use of rhyme throughout the poem, his use of meter helps the reader visualize this fragmented yet unified dance between the father and the son in the poem. The rhythmic pattern of Roethke’s diction allows the reader to think of a song or melody to accompany his lyrical words. Throughout the piece, Roethke relies on the reader’s imagination to interpret this deeply emotional piece.

Beautiful illustrations on this blog!
Beautiful illustrations on this blog! | Source

People are unique in their very own way

With most (some might argue all) poems, the reader and the author must completely rely on his or her imagination in order to formulate some kind of interpretation. The author’s imagination connects with the reader’s imagination through the combination of words, rhythms, and symbolism. The present environment as well as the past environment can help to manipulate this imagination. For example, I just watched a horror movie right before I read “My Papa’s Waltz” for the first time. My imagination still had remnants of what I just watched, which lead me to believe the piece was dark or depressing. The second time I read the poem, my son and husband were playing on the living room floor as I read it out loud. My imagination helped to piece a few things together and realize this poem reflected a loving memory of a boy and his father.

I used my imagination mixed with what I knew about life and my environment to interpret this poem. The reason why people say poetry is open to interpretation is because no one has the same exact experiences and imagination. People in general are unique in his or her own individual way; therefore, each individual’s imagination that leads his or her to any particular interpretation is just as unique.

Questions & Answers


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      • profile image

        Surabhi Kaura 

        4 years ago

        This is a wonderful interpretation here. I just heard this poem for the first time and liked it very much. Great analysis here! Peace :)

      • gracep13 profile imageAUTHOR

        Grace Peterson 

        6 years ago from Southern California

        "My Papa's Waltz" is definitely up there on my list of favorites! I happened to choose this poem from a list of literary pieces. I am so happy I chose it to write an academic paper on. It truly is a beautiful poem with something extra to it that I can't quite point out. ;)

      • Heather Loster profile image

        Heather McDavid 

        6 years ago from Joliet

        This is one of my favorite poems. I first heard it, and had to analyze it, in a creative writing class in school. I love that someone else had hubbed their interpretation of this poem. Thank you for sharing this :)


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