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Looking At My Papas Waltz English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1226 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke is an interesting poem that begins with complexity. Theodore Roethke implicates the aspects of his childhood experience in this poem. This poem is immersed with metaphors, symbolism and imagery that can overwhelm the readers with vagueness and doubts. Upon this poem’s interpretation, some people consider this poem as a parental abuse and some people see it as a son’s cheerful memory of an evening dancing with his father. The metaphors, symbols and tone of this poem bring the impression of a child’s unconditional love for his abusive father.

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Usually, the waltz is a formal dance in which two people swing back and forth moving in a circular motion. “Papa” is an affectionate word for father. In the title of the poem, ‘Waltz’ is symbolic of a relationship between a son and his father. The title emphasizes a child’s graceful and joyous dance with his father. However there are signs of violence throughout the poem. These hidden messages strongly oppose our expectations of a waltz. This poem expresses the speaker’s relationship with his drunken father. Even though Roethke’s father might be an embarrassment to him, he accepts his father with love, elegance and maturity.

The first stanza of the poem highlights the speaker’s unconditional love for his drunken father. The smell of alcohol in his father’s breath can make a young child like the poet dizzy. After analyzing the first two lines, I get the impression of dissatisfaction in Roethke’s voice. Other people might not agree on my analysis and look at the whiskey on his father’s breath as a factor of the working class culture of 1948. However, these lines confirm poet’s discomfort because of his father’s conduct.

The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I hang on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy. (1-4)

Waltz supposes to be a passionate and adoring dance between two people. However, his father’s rambunctious behavior is making it hard for Roethke to dance with him. Waltz can also represent the poet’s life. Although father and son relationship suppose to be passionate and loving, Roethke’s drunken father is making it less appealing and attractive. Poet compares his acceptance of his father reckless conduct with death like it is not pleasurable but yet inevitable. Speaker is not pleased with his father’s behavior, but he values their time dancing together over any discomfort, pain or harm his father may cause.

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The words “We romped,” in second stanza symbolize joyous, loving attitude between them. But pans fall from the shelf shows the roughness and the violence. The complexity of this stanza lies in these two lines, “My mother’s countenance / Could not unfrown itself” (7-8). The speaker’s mother frowns in condemnation validate the irresponsible and reckless behavior of poet’s father. Her condemnation also expresses danger involved in their dancing. However, poet’s mother does not try to stop them. Some people might think that the mother does not stop them because there is nothing to concern. I interpret her silence as she is also scared of her husband and fears that speaking up might not help. Pagnattaro also agrees with my interpretation as she states in her essay.

Her displeasure presumably stems from a number of sources, including her isolation from the waltzing play, her irritation about husband’s drinking, and her perception that her young son is being dragged about the room. Significantly, she holds back, not intervening and allowing the rollick to carry on. (Pagnattaro 1)

In third stanza, the speaker illustrates how his father is manhandling him during the dance. “The hand that held my wrist / Was battered on one knuckle” (9-10). These lines show that the poet’s father is holding his wrist roughness and stiffness instead of clinging to Roethke’s hand like customary waltz partners would. Battered on one knuckle symbolize the hard and stiff nature of Roethke’s father. His father could receive this injury in the result of assault or hard work. Stanza three opening implies that the father could be brute and alcoholic, or a blue collar hard worker. Throughout the poem, Roethke often leaves the readers with complexity to decide whether this poem contains terrific memories of his childhood or the remembrance of his father’s rambunctious behavior. Roethke concludes third stanza with these lines “at every step you missed / my right ear scraped a buckle”(11-12) which associate with abuse. Roethke’s faces the consequences of his father’s drunkenness and clumsiness. Every step his father missed causes Roethke scrapes his ear on his father’s buckle. This is the gesture of pain, uneasiness and violence. Even though speaker’s father was clumsy and had lack of sanity, he continued the waltz. Roethke reminisces how he was getting hurt but yet still holding on his father.

Speaker enlightens in final stanza that even though his father was thoughtless, abusive and violent towards him, Roethke is still clinging to his father’s memories. “Clinging to his shirt” is metaphor for holding on to his father’s memory. Poet values his time with his father and wishes to never end. Therefore, he willingly despites the fact that buckle of his father’s belt is hurting him and dances till it is time to sleep. Roethke emphasizes how the legacy of aggression and abusive behavior of his father made him mature much beyond his age in these lines, “You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hand by dirt” (13-14). “Palm caked hand” illustrates the mistreatment, violence, roughness and stiffness.

In “My Papa’s Waltz”, Theodore Roethke expressed the vivid remembrance of his childhood and his father’s rambunctious behavior. Roethke condoned his father’s drunkenness, manhandling and negligence yet remembers his everlasting affection for his “papa.” This indicates Roethke’s unconditional love towards his father. Even though he was getting hurt by his father’s lapses, he willingly carried on the waltz till he went to bed. Speaker expressed his father’s actions uncaring and rough through the violent imagery associated with the smell of whiskey on his breath, his battered knuckle and his son’s ear being scraped. Roethke also shows the signs of his father clumsiness and carelessness when the pans slide off the shelves and they continue the waltz. “My mother’s countenance” and “The hand that held my wrist” instead of holding another hand gave the sense of helplessness. The mother expressed disapproval with the frown on his face but unable to do anything. And the way speaker’s father was dragging his son along by his wrist, demonstrated Reoktre’s helplessness towards his father’s manhandling. However, Theodore Reoktre gave preference to his unconditional love for his father and accepted their relationship with each other with all its uniqueness.


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