My Papa’s Waltz Poem Written By Theodore Roethke | Summary, Analysis, Themes, Structure, Literary Devices

My Papa’s Waltz Analysis: The poem, My Papa’s Waltz was first published in 1952 but later incorporated in “The Lost Son and Other Poems” in 1948. This poetry is said and considered to be an autobiography, and it depicts the poet’s childhood. The poet’s father lived difficult life, and the phrase “caked hard by dirt” may be a reference to his profession and his nature as well.

Students can also check the English Summary to revise with them during exam preparation.

My Papa’s Waltz Summary

Through the ‘dance’ metaphor, Waltz, ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ talks about the complex relationship between a son and his father. Within the first few lines of this poem, the narrator alludes to his father’s whiskey breath, his actions and how “Such waltzing was not easy.”

Although the waltzing mentioned here is soon disclosed to be a spinning confusion of ongoing patterned violence. The narrator makes it very clear that this Waltz that the two are engaging in is not new.

The father and son “waltzed” and “romped” around the kitchen, which results in a mess, much to his mother’s disapproval, until his father holds his son’s wrist and takes him up to the bed.

Summary of the Poem My Papa's Waltz

My Papa’s Waltz Theme

All through the poem, the poet explores themes of father-son relationships and violence. In the second half of the verse, violence is seen in striking moments. Yet, it is just one part of the relationship, not the full of it.

It is clearly understood from the poem that whatever the relationship is between the father and the son, their relationship is filled with lots of difficulties. Their dance represents the complicated nature of the relationship. It also describes the physical fights and the arguments, life goals, differences in thoughts and day-to-day life.

Structure and Form of the Poem My Papa’s Waltz

The poem has four stanzas, and each stanza contains four lines; this type of division is also known as quatrains. The lines follow a simple My Papa’s Waltz rhyme scheme of ABAB and use the meter of iambic trimeter.

The lines are mostly made up of three sets of two beats, one of which is unstressed and the other is stressed even though the metric pattern is not consistent throughout. The meter’s balance is interrupted at a few points when there is an extra unstressed syllable at the end of a line. This imbalance can also be connected directly to the off-balance dance that the son and the father are doing.

My Papa’s Waltz Literary Devices

Roethke’s ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ uses various literary devices. Some of these devices are enjambment, allusion and similes. In the first stanza, there is a utilization of a good simile when the narrator says that he “hung on like death” to his father as they romped and spun throughout the kitchen.

This phrase seems like the son’s grasp is something inevitable. Throughout the poem, there is a presence of allusions to hint violence that makes the Waltz all the more stranger. In actuality, Waltz is a metaphor for the more complicated relationship the father has with his son.

Their off-balance dance movements My Papa’s Waltz symbolism their inability to understand each other and navigate their lives. However, it is not possible to ignore phrases like “scarped a buckle” and “held my wrist” and words like “battered” that hints at something like physical violence.

Analysis of the Poem My Papa's Waltz

Analysis of the Poem My Papa’s Waltz

1st Stanza

“The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy.”

Throughout the first four lines of the poem, the narrator describes the sounds and sights and feelings that the “waltz” suggested. There was enough smell of the whiskey that made the speaker feel dizzy from his father.

He spun with his father (metaphorically) throughout the house. The relationship between the father and son is described through the metaphor of “dance”. The son held on to his father like death, trying to remain attached to his father.

“Death” in the line also suggests that the son’s grasp is harmful to the father. Maybe he has yet to understand how their relationship is. It was challenging for the son to stay attached to his father all through his ups and downs.

2nd stanza

“We romped until the pans

Slid from the kitchen shelf;

My mother’s countenance

Could not unfrown itself.”

The following few lines tell more about the symbolic dance. Disrupting the balance of the kitchen, the father and the son moved throughout the kitchen. His mother was displeased by the whole thing. His mother could not help “unfrown” herself; This hints that his mother disapproves of this relationship but is used to it.

3rd Stanza

“The hand that held my wrist

Was battered on one knuckle;

At every step you missed

My right ear scraped a buckle.”

When the readers reach the third stanza, it becomes clear that there is something darker in the poem. The dance is not all that innocent as it appeared up to this stanza.

Phrases like “scraped a buckle” and “battered” make it seem like the father beats his son. There is physical violence present in this relationship somewhere, and the son is on the receiving side of it.

4th Stanza

“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 final and fourth stanza of this poem ends the poem with the son being sent to his bed. He is still attached to his “father’s shirt”, not willing to let him go and relinquish whatever impression of a relationship that they have. His will is admirable even when he faces “beating time on” his head by his father.

Similar Poetry

Poetry about the relationship of a father and a son is far from rare. However, there are both positive or negative poems present and to choose from while looking through centuries of poetry.

A few of these are “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath, one of her most troubling poetry. “my father moved through dooms of love” by E.E. cummings which talks about his father, a Unitarian minister. Robert Hayden’s ‘Those Winter Sundays’ and “I will Go With My Father a-Plughing” by Joseph Campbell are also examples of such poems.