Interpretation of Theodore Roethke’s Poem My Papa’s Waltz

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Words: 1183 |

Pages: 3|

6 min read

Published: May 14, 2021

Words: 1183|Pages: 3|6 min read

Published: May 14, 2021

Within the lines of Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” a playful experience between father and son can be misinterpreted, while the mother watches in anger. The content is presented in a happy and childish manner, which can lead one to believe that a child is just having fun. Roethke’s point of view at that point in his life led him to eventually think back on the numerous meanings that that childhood memory could resemble. The reader ultimately determines what the purpose of what they are reading, but can be swayed by other’s opinions to create a more solid interpretation. One such interpretation of “My Papa's Waltz” is the malfunction brought about by the drunken actions of a father who beats his child that brings his marriage irreparable damage. In agreement with Theodore Roethke’s tragic past, his poems and character were most likely fueled and structured by the constant downfalls in his childhood. In the article titled “Biography of Theodore Roethke” it states that “… Roethke was 14, when he got his first dose of tragedy. His uncle committed suicide and his father died of cancer…”, leading to the incredibly viable assumption that Roethke was greatly influenced by his childhood traumas. Supported by the following lines “…emotional events, especially paired with manic depressive episodes that struck regularly, that would help refine Roethke as his life proceeded.” that is stated within the article. Roethke spent some time in an asylum due to his many mental breakdowns fueled by the stress and exhaustion within his life as depicted in the line “But the stress of his discontent, and the exhaustion he felt from simply trying to live his life on his own terms, led to a mental breakdown in 1935, the first of several that eventually landed the poet in Ann Arbor’s Mercywood Sanitarium.”. The early occurrence of traumatic events within Roethke’s past and the personal struggle of trying to lead a simple life were the leading factor fueling his works.

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In addition, the points that can be drawn are that Roethke was being abused as a child and he was better able to interpret it as abuse when he grew up and gained a better understanding of what actually occurred. The uses of past tense words such as “was not” in place of “is not” create an idea that the author is contemplating on his past through a flashback. The flashback is used to recall his past in order to make better sense of traumatic events that would not have made a lot of sense to a younger version of him. The use of a rhythmic scheme in the poem can be seen from the words “death” and “breath”, but not “dizzy” and “easy”, this further alludes to the uncoordinated and drunken disposition Roethke’s father as a serious matter. Rhyme is used in the poem to hide the truth with what is perceived to display the reality that can be easily dismissed. The overall tone of the poem would be aggressive, seeing as the author’s diction is more aggressive is some areas than others. The mother’s face portrays anger almost the point of sorrow can be concluded from the lines “My mother’s countenance could not unfrown itself.” is one such example of aggression in the author’s word choice. The author’s word choice reflects the gravity of the situation, in choosing the words “death” and “beat” Roethke sought to bring an element of severity to the otherwise happy poem. Death is meant to symbolize loss and the word “beat”, typically, gives readers negative ideas when introduced with the word “child”. These words portray a heavier atmosphere that can be interpreted as both negative and positive, creating an effect of ambiguity.

In contrast, the affectionate relationship between a father and son is the prominent idea of the poem “My Papa’s Waltz” according to the sentence “Most readers find the speaker’s attitude toward his father affectionate, and take this recollection of childhood to be a happy one.” quoted by X.J. Kennedy in the article “Roethke’s ‘My Papa’s Waltz”, created by Bobby Fong. Bobby Fong presents X.J. Kennedy analysis to be on the positive outlook of “My Papa’s Waltz”, which can be concluded from the sentence “Probably the reader didn’t’ stop to visualize this scene in all its comedy, with kitchen pans falling and the father using his son’s head for a drum.”. The main point of Bobby Fong’s article was to depict both conclusions that can be drawn from “My Papa’s Waltz” by opposite-minded readers, as well as to shed light on the more positive aspect that the poem has to offer. Fong suggest that the reader’s past is what guides them to draw a prejudice conclusion and the inability to form a non-biased opinion is what causes the reader to formulate a proper interpretation.

Coherent with the claims in second paragraph, Andrew Spacey, the author of “Analysis of the poem “My Papa’s waltz” by Theodore Roethke”, remains ambiguous, at first, to either side that the poem could fall under. Spacey declares that there can be only one of two options for the main idea of the poem when he states that “It’s basically offering two options: 1) this is an innocent look back at a lighter moment in domestic life from the perspective of a child somewhat in awe of their father; 2) this is a prelude to something more sinister. The father is a drunkard who doesn’t know how to control himself and who is threatening to the home life.” However, he goes on to hint at a view that is more in favor of abuse in the line “…we empathize with the clinging child who is roughly handled by the drunken father.” Spacey also points out that the authors diction is serious, rather than playful, as he writes “knuckle and buckle are hard, aggressive words, breath and death suggest beginnings and end of life…”. He agrees that despite the possibly simplistic theme that the poem presents to the reader, which would be a recollection of happy moments from a happy occurrence between a boy and his father, that the poem carries a multitude of terms that seem too aggressive to create positive connections.

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In conclusion the Theodore Roethke’s flashback through his childhood memory may lead one to perceive his poem as a drunken father who abuses his family, rather than misconception of the father dancing with his child. The mother is clearly troubled by the intoxication of her husband, does not know what to make of the situation, and leaves her with nothing to do to help her son. When tied together, the inability on the mother’s part and the immorality on the father’s part, lead to the dysfunctional family unit displayed in Roethke’s childhood. Roethke ended up a victim in a circumstance with events that were beyond his control, but shares this to dispel possible misconceptions of abuse between the view of a mistreated child and a bystander. The lack of action, from a victim’s point of view, manifests a plethora of physical and emotional problems that only fuel further problems within the victim’s way of thinking.

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Interpretation Of Theodore Roethke’s Poem My Papa’s Waltz. (2021, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from
“Interpretation Of Theodore Roethke’s Poem My Papa’s Waltz.” GradesFixer, 14 May 2021,
Interpretation Of Theodore Roethke’s Poem My Papa’s Waltz. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 13 Apr. 2024].
Interpretation Of Theodore Roethke’s Poem My Papa’s Waltz [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2021 May 14 [cited 2024 Apr 13]. Available from:
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