Theodore Roethke was a twentieth-century American poet who was born on 25 May 1908 in Michigan, USA and passed away on 1 August 1963, aged 55. He was the winner of Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, National Book Award for Poetry, Bollingen Prize, etc.
Roethke is often considered a precursor of confessional poets and, undoubtedly, one of the most accomplished poets of his generation. His poetry books were published before his death as well as posthumously. Some of the prominent ones are Words for the Wind (1958), The Far Field (1964), The Waking, to name a few.
‘My Papa’s Waltz’ is one of the defining poems of Theodore Roethke. The sixteen-lined poem has four quatrains. Let’s go for a succinct summary of the poem and then analyze it on the basis of its poetic features.
My Papa’s Waltz Summary
In Theodore Roethke’s poem My Papa’s Waltz, the speaker is a little boy whose father is a drunkard. His Papa gives off an odor of whiskey while he is waltzing and the speaker hangs on to him. The father’s breath stinks so bad that it could make a small boy like him dizzy.
Despite all odds, the speaker and his father romp uncontrollably and they make utensils slide from the kitchen shelf. It makes his mother furious but she just frowns and does not speak a single word to object her husband and son’s dance.
His father’s hand which holds his tiny wrist is battered on the knuckle. Whenever the father misses a step, the son’s ear rubs against the buckle of his dad.
Sometimes, the father hits his son on his head by the hand which literally has dirt. Then, the speaker is waltzed off to bed by his daddy.
My Papa’s Waltz Analysis
As much as it sounds romantic, Theodore Roethke’s poem My Papa’s Waltz is a violent one. The poem is in the simple past tense which means the speaker is remembering his traumatic childhood. We assume that a child as short as his father’s buckle would not have written such a good poem. The speaker is rather reminiscing his past.
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
The first two lines of the poem tell how drunk the speaker’s father was. He would, by no means, intentionally cling to his odorous father who stinks whiskey so strong that it could make a child of his age dizzy.
“But I hung on like death,” tells everything about the passivity or the helplessness of the speaker. If he had danced voluntarily, he would not feel like a dead and, of course, he would not find it difficult. The boy is, in fact, controlled by the inebriated father.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The father-son duo’s dance went out of control and the boy witnessed the pans slide from the kitchen shelf. As a result, his mother frowns but she cannot even think of stopping them from romping. The daddy probably clutched his son so powerfully and collided him against walls, though it is not said in the poem. Otherwise, the utensils would not fall.
The speaker’s father was most possibly extremely violent and even his wife could not oppose him while he was beating his son mercilessly. As already mentioned in the first stanza, the child boy hung on like death.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle
It is now proof that the child was not deliberately hanging on to his father, rather the latter is holding the wrist of the former. Since the old man was intoxicated, he might have collided himself against something while thrashing his son, and he had his knuckle battered.
The last two lines of the third stanza of Roethke’s poem suggests that the speaker was beaten by his father using a belt. Because he is extremely drunk we cannot expect him to have some mercy upon his own child. “At every step you missed/ My right ear scraped a buckle” does not mean they danced and the boy’s ear scraped the buckle of his father. Instead, his father beat the speaker of the poem with the strap of his belt and when he failed to hit properly, even the belt’s buckle hit his ear.
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 brutal father unleashed his anger upon the head of his son. We can say that he drank out and while returning he fell somewhere from where he got the dirt on his palm. On the other hand, it is also a metaphor for a hand that is profane, a hand that has done something wrong. The speaker was so helpless that the same savage father had to pull him to bed.
Theodore Roethke’s poem My Papa’s Waltz Theme
We can connote Theodore Roethke’s poem My Papa’s Waltz in different ways. But the most prominent themes of the poem are:
Family is the most important theme of My Papa’s Waltz. There is a complete family of a couple and a son. Despite their completeness, the father is violently abusing his son, and he has kept his wife under his control. Hence, we do not hear a word from the speaker’s mother when her child is being beaten, almost to death.
Patriarchy and Masculinity
Like the above-mentioned issue, patriarchy and masculinity are yet another important themes of Roethke’s poem My Papa’s Waltz. It is in the patriarchal society where women are supposed to remain silent whereas men are supposed to take care of every hard business. The speaker’s mother is probably inside the kitchen which is the most explicit picture of patriarchy.
By masculinity, we are talking about the violent acts of the speaker’s father. He does not have a competitor, rather he is unleashing his beastly manner upon his helpless little son. Had the speaker’s mother shown up at the scene, his father would have beaten her as well just because he can.
Tone and Rhyme Scheme of My Papa’s Waltz
Let’s talk about the rhyming pattern of the poem My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke. We already know it has four stanzas, each with a quatrain. The rhyming scheme of the poem is ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GHGH.
The tone of My Papa’s Waltz is very ironically musical. Though unbearable violence is taking place, the poet narrates the story in a romantic manner. It is because he is no longer suffering from the same fate, instead, he is reminiscing the past. The rhyming pattern plays a huge role in making the poem musical.
Read Theodore Roethke’s poem My Papa’s Waltz in his own voice!