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Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”

In Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” the persona reveals an incidence of child abuse that happened earlier in his life. He divulges the occurrence of abuse through the use of certain words and noting the actions that go on during the “waltz. ” Through the use of graphic diction, Roethke informs the reader that “My Papa’s Waltz” depicts an episode of child abuse. The persona Roethke creates discloses the incidence of child abuse to the reader by using particular words in his poem.

The persona says “I hung on like death: / such waltzing was not easy” to show he is being beaten badly but is still alive (Roethke 3,4). He also uses the phrase “battered on one knuckle” to describe his father’s knuckles (10). The persona chooses the word “battered” in the phrase to describe his father’s knuckles because it creates a realistic visual image of the beating. When a person is battering another person, his knuckles often become bruised.

When the speaker’s father misses steps, his son’s “right ear [scrapes] a buckle,” which shows that the father is projecting his frustration with himself onto his son (12); the father therefore punishes his son for his own incompetence. Either the father is inebriated from the whiskey and getting mad when he skips steps in the waltz with his son, or whenever the persona dodges one of his father’s beat-up fists, his right ear scrapes his dad’s belt buckle. One of the last words Roethke places in his poem to highlight the child abuse is “beat.

The phrase “beat time on [the boy’s] head” implies that the father is thrashing the son by hitting him in the head (13). Of all the words that could be employed, Roethke chooses “beat” because of the images of violence one would associate with child abuse. Another way Roethke exposes the mistreatment of the child by describing the actions of people in the poem. Roethke goes into detail on certain actions of the characters in the poem to intimate to the reader that the poem addresses child abuse.

The father drinks; “the whiskey on [his] breath / could make a small boy dizzy” insinuates the possibility that the father may be an alcoholic (1,2). The consumption of alcohol in any amount changes a person’s behavior. The father may perhaps be an alcoholic and get more aggressive and violent after drinking, which causes him to beat his son. The father and son “romped until the pans / slid from the kitchen shelf,” showing that the father is actually throwing his son, and as a result, the kitchen pans get knocked off the shelf.

Seeing her son being beaten, the mother is understandably sad; the mother “could not unfrown [herself],” knowing she cannot change the situation (7). Roethke writes that the dad “[beats] time on [his] head” to provide clear evidence that the father is hitting the speaker with his fists in a rhythm much like the rhythm a boxer utilizes while practicing on a punching bag (13). Although Roethke’s poem is called “My Papa’s Waltz,” it is clearly a dance of violence involving a young boy. By using descriptive words along with the brutal actions that the father takes, Roethke conveys the sadistic nature of his poem in an ingenious way.

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1 thought on “Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz””

  1. Not the best example of poetry analysis – the author projects the interpretation that the poem is about abuse as fact and does more ‘translation’ of lines than interpretation and analysis. Some claims, such as “The consumption of alcohol in any amount changes a person’s behavior” are simply not true and written from the perspective of someone who, well, hasn’t consumed “alcohol in any amount”. No judgment whoever, but such a broad but inaccurate claim used to support the analysis ultimately discredits the author.

    For highschoolers (or college students) seeking out examples of analysis of “My Papa’s Waltz”, note that although the ‘abuse’ reading is commonplace, you cannot say outright that this poem is about abuse. The chaotic and even rough diction can support this interpretation, but ultimately the language contributes to chaotic mood. The mother’s “countenance” that “Could not unfrown itself” suggests more annoyance at the mess the father is causing than fear that her child is hurt. There isn’t enough evidence in the poem to suggest that the Mother is in fact contributing to the abuse through her almost indifference toward a harsh beating.

    In analyzing the poem, I suggest getting a grounded understanding of the ‘surface level’ of the poem, and once you get the literal actions, story, and mood of the poem, you can explore any deeper, symbolic or metaphorical meaning of the poem. In this instance, think about how the connotative language may contribute to the meaning of the poem and possibly allow for the abuse reading, but don’t just say this poem is about abuse.


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