My Papa’s Waltz

11 November 2016

Theodore Roethke wrote many poems about his father, “My Papa’s Waltz” is one particular poem that is still the source of much debate, both in college classrooms and among established literary critics. Initially, the poem appears to be a young boys fond recollection of a dance with a tipsy, but loving father. Many who read it strongly disagree, and feel that the tone is much more severe, and alludes to a drunken and abusive father. To clarify this argument, one must closely analyze the syntax, and search for the true intent of Roethke’s careful chosen words.

Upon close examination, the poem seems to convey an intriguing ambiguity that lends itself to both arguments. The poems title, “My Papa’s Waltz”, is the first indication of the authors intended tone. Roethke had innumerable choices for the title of his poem, so we must consider how differently we might enter into its reading if he had entitled it “My Papa’s Dance”. The word “dance” can have many negative connotations. One that comes readily to mind is the idiom “same old song and dance”. That would seem to indicating that the events within the poem occur with some regularity and consistency.

Again, consider how “dance” is used to describe the way boxers move in ring; whereas waltz on the other hand, seems to have a more jovial and spontaneous connotation. Roethke’s use of “Papa” instead of “Father” is another hint of his ambivalence. “Papa” has a much kinder intuitive word association than the sterner “Father” word choice. Roethke is clearly telling us something important with his chosen vocabulary, and if he had wanted the poem to obviously be about an abusive father, he wouldn’t have titled the poem as he did.

Moving beyond the title, Roethke’s word choice in the first stanza begins to conjure the negative imagery. Line one, “The whiskey on your breath” conveys a father who has been drinking and is now interacting with his small child (1). The stanza continues with words like “dizzy” and “death” and so Roethke begins to set the stage for his tricky and hazy recollection (2;3). More negative words follow, and throughout the poem we see examples of words that, at face value, have negative connotations.

He describes his mother, who is witnessing this mess-making as they “romped”, as having a “Countenance” that “could not unfrown itself” (5;7;8). This obvious disapproval might suggest again that something unsavory, perhaps even dangerous, is occurring. Roehtke proceeds with more negative language, describing a father who is missing dance steps, and with every one missed, his sons “right ear scraped a buckle” (12). All the while the father it keeping his rhythm by “beating time” on his sons head (13). Again, Roethke’s word choice appears to point toward a violent, even painful encounter between father and son.

However, Roethke chooses words that, at first read, evoke thoughts of negativity or abuse; but upon careful analysis of the stanzas, and the poems as a whole, another perception is realized. Consider the second stanza’s reference to the boy’s mother and her disapproving “countenance” (7). She is the only other witness, and her perception is vital in deciphering the true tone. What Roethke doesn’t clarify is whether she is frowning at the waltz in general or just at the fact that’s its boisterous nature is causing pans to slide “from the kitchen shelf”(6).

Presumably, the falling pots not only made an unpleasant noise, but also created work in their need to be picked up. It is reasonable to surmise that this would bring a frown to the face of most mothers, even the most tolerant ones. More evidence to suggest Roethke’s complex depiction and recollection is positive, or at least ambivalent, is found not in the poem’s syntax, but in the. In its prologue, Otto Roethke, the author’s father, is described as a stern and hardworking man (pg. 316). This poem highlights an event of obvious frivolity, not normally in his father’s nature.

Whether or not his father’s intoxication and the resulting playful nature are truly a negative thing is where Rotheke cleverly leaves us guessing. It is the poems last stanza that provides the final piece in the tonal puzzle. The last two lines “Then waltzed me off to bed/Still clinging to your shirt” suggest a final thought that not only illustrates a caring father, but also a loving son. (15; 16) The line “waltzed me off to bed”, if viewing the word “waltz” in a positive light, speaks of a father, carefully and delightedly, whisking his son off to bed (15). Still clinging to your shirt” portrays a child still hugging his papa as he carries him off to bed (16). The challenge is concluding, one way or another, what Roethke’s true meaning of this poem was. However, by analyzing not only his scrupulous word choice, but also the poem’s context, it is possible to draw solid conclusions. The poem is a recollection of a clumsy moment of convivial affection in a young boys life. The poem also, metaphorically, alludes to unintentional hurt caused by a loving, but sometimes inept father. The poem’s beauty lies in its ambiguity, allowing readers to bring their own childhood experiences to bear on the work.

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My Papa's Waltz. (2016, Nov 26). Retrieved May 29, 2020, from
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