By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘My Papa’s Waltz’ is one of the most popular and most widely studied poems by the American poet Theodore Roethke (1908-63). In this poem, published in 1948, Roethke recalls dancing with his drunken father, remembering this childhood experience with mixed feelings.
You can read ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ here – the poem takes around one minute to read – before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Roethke’s poem below.
‘My Papa’s Waltz’: summary
The poem comprises four stanzas, with each stanza containing four lines. The poem describes the waltz the poet would perform at home with his father.
In the first stanza, Roethke addresses his father directly, apostrophising him (that is, addressing someone who is absent). His father had drunk so much whiskey that Roethke could smell it on his breath, and it made him dizzy, as he was so young and not used to alcohol.
But although he felt dizzy, Roethke hung on to his father for dear life, because dancing this particular waltz was not easy and required concentration.
In the second stanza, Roethke recalls how they danced around the kitchen until the pans began to fall off the shelf. The poet’s face was permanently frowning while she watched her husband and son waltzing together, perhaps because she did not approve of the effects of their dancing (those pans falling from the shelf) or because she was sick and tired of her husband, the poet’s father, drinking whiskey and getting inebriated.
The third stanza sees the poet remembering how his father’s hand, the one keeping hold of the boy’s wrist, was battered on one knuckle, while every time the father misses a step in the dance, the boy’s ear scrapes across the father’s belt buckle.
In the final stanza, the poet recalls his father beating musical time on his son’s head with his palm (dirty, we assume, from hard work), before dancing his son off to bed while the boy clings onto his father’s shirt (more on this closing image below).
‘My Papa’s Waltz’: analysis
What kind of poem is ‘My Papa’s Waltz’? It’s clearly a personal poem, in which the poet himself (we can label the speaker in the poem as Roethke with some confidence, based on biographical information) recalls dancing with his father in the kitchen at home. Roethke’s father, Otto, a German immigrant to the United States, had died when the poet was still a teenager.
Indeed, given the autobiographical nature of this poem and the frankness with which Roethke revisits some troubling memories from his childhood, this poem is sometimes viewed as a forerunner to confessional poetry which would be popularised by Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and others around a decade later, in the late 1950s.
And ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ may appear, to the casual reader, to be a memory of a happy occasion involving the poet’s father. But there’s an undercurrent violence, and the threat of violence, lurking beneath the surface: the father has been drinking, of course, and note how he beats time on his son’s head (and why is one of the father’s knuckles ‘battered’, we might ask?).
He is careless, perhaps as a result of the whiskey he has been drinking; but when he misses a step, his son pays for his mistake, by scraping his ear on his father’s belt buckle. (This gives us an idea of how young Roethke must have been at the time: he is small next to his enormous father, and his head only comes up to his dancing partner’s waist.)
Roethke, by contrast, is characterised by his holding on: he hangs onto his father ‘like death’ (a grimmer turn of phrase than the synonymous ‘hang on for dear life’), and is ‘clinging’ onto his father’s shirt as he is danced off to bed. All he can do is cling on: if dancing is about one partner leading and the other following their lead, the father is clearly the active one, his son a passive participant who is swept up in the experience.
Indeed, that final image is an example of what makes Roethke’s poem so difficult to pin down whenever we try to analyse its meaning. Is the young Roethke clinging to his father’s shirt out of love and a desire to be close to him? Or is it merely for the more pragmatic reason that he doesn’t want his drunken father to drop him next time he misses a step?
Throughout ‘My Papa’s Waltz’, Roethke uses poetic devices effectively to enhance this suggestion of violence. For example, when in the final stanza he tells us that his father ‘beat time on my head’ we are left wondering how his father did this (with a stick?), until we read on to the next line and find it’s the more innocent (though still troubling) ‘With a palm caked hard by dirt’.
This is an example of enjambment: the running-over of a sentence or phrase from one line to the next, without punctuation at the end of the line. Roethke masterfully uses this device to full effect here to give us a moment of pause between the lines, to introduce the threat of violence (already there within the verb ‘beat’) only to minimise that threat as we continue to read.
In the last analysis, then, Roethke’s poem reveals the poet’s ambivalent feelings towards his father as he remembers him now he is an adult himself. There is a suggestion of more violent and fearful moments for the young boy (and we wonder whether the mother’s perpetual frown is revealing of more domestic misery), but there’s also a warmth to the poem, especially in Roethke’s final image of clinging to his father’s shirt.
‘My Papa’s Waltz’: form
In some respects, ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ is an atypical Theodore Roethke poem. If you read one of his other well-known and oft-anthologised poems – ‘The Waking’, perhaps, or ‘Child on Top of a Greenhouse’ – you will see how much plainer and more direct the language of ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ is than those poems.
However, Roethke’s poetry is always attentive to form, and this poem is formally regular, arranged into four quatrains (four-line stanzas) rhymed abab. The alternate rhyme and the steady iambic trimeter metre of the poem both summon the waltz itself. The metre is iambic trimeter, which means there are three iambs in each line, an iamb being a foot comprising a light stress followed by a heavy stress. We can see this in the line:
You BEAT time ON my HEAD
Although, occasionally, there are some variations: in the first and third stanzas, the even lines contain an extra syllable at the end of the line (on ‘dizzy’, ‘easy’, ‘knuckle’, and ‘buckle’). This is known as a hypermetrical stress, because it is found over the end of the line, on top of the three iambs which precede it.
There’s also an anapaestic substitution (if we wish to be technical) at the beginning of the second line of the final stanza (‘With a PALM’, where there are two light stresses before the first heavy stress in the line).