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
The poem, “My Papa’s Waltz”, written by Theodore Roethke, is written in such a way that creates many debate and contestation over the intended message and tone. Many interpret see, the poem as joyous and loving; others, including myself, view it with disgust and pity. The boy in this poem expresses his feelings toward his relationship between his father and himself. He possesses an attitude, which gives an example of the poet’s ironic tone. The poetic language and poem structure create on the whole an explicit image, which assists in denoting the ideal significance of the poem.
From the style of the poem, we can see that the speaker is an older man who is reflecting back on his childhood. The poem describes an incident when his father arrives home drunk and apparently in a state of abuse. “The whiskey on your breath Could make a small boy dizzy; But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy.” The speaker is referring to the word “waltz” to the act of mistreatment. Several words and phrases in the poem confirm this. For example, words such as “battered”, “scraped”, “beat”, and phrases including “But I hung on like death”, and “My right ear scraped a buckle”, are example of this connotation. In addition, the phrase, “The hand that held my wrist,” in the third stanza, is another example. They would normally hold their partner’s hand when dancing. The idea that the father was grabbing his son’s wrists gives an evidence of abuse.
We can recognizes the boy’s apprehension and fear towards his father’s actions and acquires a feeling of sympathy for him, realizing that he is helpless in the situation. In order to survive this torturous experience, the boy must hold on for his life. “But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy.” Although as an adult the speaker condemns his father’s behavior, he recognizes it as a means of paternal affection. We can conclude this supposition through the actual title of the poem. The word “waltz” connotes a positive attitude. When someone waltzes, they are dancing joyfully. Although at the time the boy was terrified, the father perhaps was inattentive to his son’s reactions, and the boy as an adult now comes to this realization. The mother during this event mentally condemns her husband for his actions. The statement, “My mother’s countenance Could not unfrown itself,” refers to the thought that she could not hold in; her disproval.
The poem structure in “My Papa’s Waltz” consists of four quatrain. The shortness of the poem along with the rhyming technique in an ABAB, allows the poem to have a smooth and melodic rhythm. The poem uses a language that would be used in everyday speech; however there are a few exceptions. Examples of formal words such as “countenance” demonstrate the use of literary diction. The denotation differs from the connotation of the poem. If one were to describe this poem literally, they would explain a situation involving a drunken man dancing absurdly with his son. However, if we were to explain the connotation of the poem, he or she may describe the act of cruelty and torture upon the boy. There are several poetic devices used in this poem such as similes, extended metaphors, and imagery. An example of a simile is used on the third line in the first stanza.
Roethke says, “But I hung on like death…” This simile expresses that the boy was in fact extremely frightened. The entire idea of waltzing is an extended metaphor for the ill-treatment by the father on his son. Imagery is demonstrated through the use of descriptive words throughout the whole poem. Adjectives including dizzy, caked hard, and verbs such as waltzing, hung on, romped, pans sliding, scraped, beat, clinging, along with nouns like whisky, death, and dirt together create a detailed image of the poem. We can clearly imagine a large dirty drunk man stumbling into the house, and abusing his tiny helpless child. Many times the father misses the boy but occasionally is successful. “At every step you missed My right ear scraped a buckle.”
The tone is rather ironic for a few reasons. Firstly, the use of the word “waltz” in the title as well as in the poem demonstrates this. As noted before, the word “waltz” contains a positive signification. However, the actual message of the poem is very disapproving and negative. The attitude of the boy is very ironic because he is comparing his horrible childhood experiences to a “waltz”. The poem is also ironic because the rhyming pattern of the poem creates a cheerful tone and melody.
As we can see, Roethke’s poem is ambiguous in meaning. However, there is many elements supporting the idea that the poem imply an abusive alcoholic father and his dysfunctional relationship with his son. The use of poetic language and style help convey the complex meaning of the poem. In addition, the poem is an excellent example of irony. The poem appears to be written by the boy in the story when he is an adult. Apparently, the man realizes that his father’s irresponsible actions were his ways of actually demonstrating his true affections towards him.