By Theidore Roethke
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.
My Papa’s Waltz Analysis
My Papa’s Waltz is a poem consisting of 4 stanzas with four lines each using the iambic trimeter, i.e. three stressed syllables in each line (except for the 2nd and 4th line of the 1st and 3rd stanzas respectively).
The iambic trimester makes the poem flow easily and sounds better.
The three stressed syllables represent an actual waltz, which always has three beats. The poem creates a picture of a father playing with his child.
We are not for sure if the child is a boy or a girl.
However, the first stanza talks of:
“The Whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy”
and we, therefore, assume that the father was playing with his son.
The father romps with the son aggressively to the kitchen, holding his wrist, making pans in the kitchen shelf slide, then takes him to bed for a rest.
What is the Meaning of the Poem My Papa’s Waltz
The poem is written by a protagonist trying to recollect his childhood experience. To understand the true meaning of this poem, we need to first understand the meanings of various vocabularies used and the connotations in the poem:
My Papa’s Waltz Vocabulary
- Waltzing– A form of romantic dancing
- Romped – Play energetically and roughly, especially by children
- Mother’s Countenance – the facial expression made by his mother
- Unfrown – contracting the eyebrows, a usually a sign of deep thought or displeasure
- Clinging – Hold on tightly to something
Connotations in My Papa’s Waltz
A connotation is an emotional or cultural association that a phrase or word carries, in addition to its literal meaning.
- The first line of the first stanza: Whiskey
Whiskey does not have a positive connotation when it comes to children
- The third line of the first stanza: “But I hung on like death”
- The second stanza:
“We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf
My Mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself”
Such statement explains how the play between the father and son was intense that the room became disorderly, and that the mother was angry/upset.
- The third Stanza, second line:
“Was battered on one knuckle”
This is an aspect of abuse
- Fourth Stanza:
“You beat time on my head”
The word “beat” may mean the musical beat in the waltz, but it may also suggest the father beating his son. Hence, the statement is a negative connotation of probable child abuse
Despite the fact that from the first stanza we may think that they are having a good time, we can’t help but think about the idea of child abuse.
Words and Phrases with a Positive Connotation
- The fourth line of the first stanza and the third line of the fourth stanza: Waltz/Waltzing
Waltzing is a form of dancing.
It is fun and usually done with people you like and in social gatherings
- The first line of the second stanza: Romped
Romping is playing, in an out of control manner. Usually by children.
From the above connotations, the story of the drunk father waltzing his son all over could be interpreted in either a positive or negative manner. It is either the drunk father is rough, hard-working, simple, and loves his son, and genuinely wants to have a good time with the son, or he is neglecting and abusing his son.
The most active person in the poem is the father, who shows the character of a man exercising his powers as the man of the house. In fact, the mother is passive and cannot stop his father from being aggressive with the son. All she could do is watch, frown, and hope that everything will be okay.
The third stanza explains how the father held his child’s hand by the wrist. This is a supporting proof of the father being overpowering and dominating.
Additionally, some of the negative words in the poem gives the reader the true identity of the poet. For example, in the fourth line of the third stanza:
“My right ear scrapped a buckle”
This means that the boy was short, the height of his father’s waist. The line is therefore an indicator of the boy’s height.
The poem also brings out the aspect of dependency. The way the son is “hanging on like death”
It is a memory of how the child held his father tightly thinking that he would die.
The aspect of dependency is also seen in the last line of the fourth stanza where the son clings on to the father’s shirt as he is taken to bed.
We also get to see a father who is hardworking. The last stanza talks of
“You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt”
This statement symbolizes years of manual labour. Perhaps the father did a tiring job, he was tough, and a figure worth admiration and sympathy.
The title of the poem: “My Papa’s Waltz” simply shows the child trying in some way to romanticize the memories of his father.
The poem leaves the reader with questions such as, is it appropriate to downplay the frailties and weaknesses of your father?
In general, having in mind that the poem was written when child battering and drinking whiskey was a social norm, and most importantly, the fact that fathers are generally rough with their sons, the whole poem is an expression of love and happiness of a father and a son.
However, when writing an essay regarding this poem, you have to always address the negative connotations.
What is the rhyme scheme in My Papa’s Waltz?
A rhyme scheme is a pattern of sounds that repeat at the end of a stanza or line. The patterns are denoted using letters of alphabets.
Rhyme schemes are generally used for making a poem seem musical.
Regular rhyme schemes improve the ability to recite a poem and help improve the form of a poem.
The rhyme scheme of “My Papa’s Waltz” is ABAB implying that every other line within a stanza rhymes.
Who is the Speaker in My Papa’s Waltz
The speaker of this poem is a man trying to recall his childhood experiences with his father and mother through a waltz.
My Papa’s Waltz Literary Devices
Literary devices help a writer present his or her ideas, feelings, and emotions, and also gives profound meanings to a reader. The literary devices bring clarity and richness in the use of language. The literary devices used in the poem include:
Symbolism: this entails the use of symbols to imply qualities and ideas. “Dance” symbolizes the eagerness of the boy to be with his father, while the “buckle”, which hurts the boy’s ear is a symbol of violence.
Imagery: Imagery helps readers to understand things using their five senses. “Still clinging to your shirt”, and “But I hung on like death”, are used to show how the boy stayed with his father.
Assonance: Assonance entails repeating vowel sounds in a single line. For example, the vowel /i/ has been repeated in the line “Still clinging to your shirt”.
Simile: “But I hung on like death”. The poet has compared the interaction and affection of the child with death. This shows how the child was desperate to be with his father.
Metaphor in My Papa’s Waltz
A metaphor is a figure of speech with a rhetorical effect that directly refers to a specific thing by mentioning another.
Metaphor is seen throughout the poem.
The waltz is a representation of a dysfunctional family.
The drinking behaviour and domination by the father make it hard for the family to have a good time while dancing or inclusion of the mother in dancing. Instead, the boy is made to have a wild and aggressive romp while the mother only watches helplessly.
My Papa’s Waltz Themes
Men and Masculinity
The poem brings out a father who is the epitome of traditional masculinity. The son mentions that the father had a battered knuckle, rough hands, and the lead role in waltz. The boy finds himself taking a feminine role as his father leads in the dance.
The poem is brought up in a family setting. Father and son are dancing while the mother is watching. The poem is clouded with controversies of whether the family is a happy one or a sad one. Some readers think that the family is torn apart because of the alcoholic father while others consider the scene a symbol of a perfectly happy and fun loving family.
Despite the fact that the father is smelling whiskey, making the son dizzy, and hurting the son’s ears with his belt, the son still clings on to him. This shows that he is really attached to and loves his father. The son also loves his mother. He is concerned that his mother frowning because of his father’s behavior of romping him and making pans in the kitchen shelves to fall.
There is demonstration of power by the father as he leads his son in the waltz. The father is also powerful over his wife. His wife stands and watches helplessly as the pans fall of from the shelves and she cannot say a thing. She cannot prevent the husband from man handling their son.
My Papa’s Waltz Tone
The overall tone of the poem is one of aggression, strain, and violence.