My Papa's Waltz: Theodore Roethke - Summary and Critical AnalysisWhen the narrator was young, he would dance around with his father. He would put his feet on top of his father’s. He would smell the whiskey on his father’s breath. It had an unpleasant feeling of loss of balance. But he would continue with great determination in spite of difficulties. Such dancing to a waltz was not easy.
They would play noisily and roughly with a lot of running and jumping. Then the pans would fall down from the kitchen shelf and the mother would be angry. While dancing the father would hold the boy’s wrist with his hand which was damaged on one finger joint. When the father missed his step, the buckle of his belt would hurt the boy’s right ear. He would beat time on the boy’s head with his dirty palm and took him to bed, but the boy still held on to his father’s shirt. Roethke’s small poem 'My Papa’s Waltz' is typically modern poem in its construction, imagery and tone.
The four quatrains are logically woven up to state the illogic of the compulsive drunkenness in a modern society. The poem moves from the staggering state of the father to the final resolution of his drunken state in the falling of the father and his child in the bed. The whiskey smell is unbearable for the child. He never pronounces any work for the problem. He endures as it seems to have been being endured by his mother for a long time. The mother’s mood is angry and depressed. Despite the husband’s drunkenness she is doing her regular household work.
The father’s hands are dirty, muddy and hard. The dirtiness of his hand is suggestive at one level of his heavy drunkenness, on the other of his profession as a farmer. He might have fallen on the ground in a state of drunken dizziness or might have come straight from the farm. The child might have clung to his father to resist the possibility of quarrel between his father and mother. The four quatrains of the poem are highly finished. The lucidity and cheerfulness of the rhythm succeed to some extent in hiding the pathos and resentment in the poem. It can be considered to be one of the picturesque poems in English literature.
The tone of the poem is half affectionate and half sardonic. The speaker’s father is a habitual drunkard. He comes home in a drunken state. Though the whiskey smell is unbearable to the child, he sticks to his father as a matter of protest which is never pronounced but endured. The speaker’s mother seems not so much impatient. It seems that she is habituated to her husband’s drunken nature. The mother does her usual household work without taking notice of her husband. But she becomes quite angry when he enters into the kitchen and dashes the shelf. By clinging to his father, the child might have been resisting his father from fighting with the mother. He might have been trying to protect his drunken father from her mother’s angry blow.
In “My Papa’s Waltz,” Roethke unites two of his more important themes—his attempt to understand his relationship with his father and his use of the dance as a metaphor for life itself.
Roethke’s father, Otto, was a person who enjoyed the outdoors and the pursuits usually associated with masculinity: sports, hunting, and fishing. Like most fathers, he wanted his son to be like him, but it was clear very early in Theodore’s life that he could not and would not follow in his father’s footsteps. For example, Theodore subscribed to a poetry journal when he was in the seventh grade. In a pattern common in many families, Otto Roethke loved his son but could not approve of his path in life; Theodore loved his father but was unable to demonstrate that love in ways that his father could understand. Worse, Otto died while Theodore was still a teenager, so the father never learned what a leading role in his chosen field the son would play—nor did Theodore have a chance during his father’s lifetime to resolve the differences between them.
Much of Roethke’s mature work embodies his attempt to sort through this relationship and, ultimately, end it, so that the poet could be free to become not merely the son of his father but himself. “The Lost Son,” which many critics regard as Roethke’s breakthrough work (in which he first asserts himself most forcefully in his own poetic manner), concerns his attempts to come to grips with the death of his father. Although the father has died, it is the son, unsure of his identity, who is lost. Ironically, in trying to become free of the memory of his judging father, Roethke discovers how much like the older man he is.
The point of connection between the two is the greenhouse and the world of plants that Roethke’s father nurtured. Here the tender side of Otto’s nature asserted itself, for it takes patience and loving care to...
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