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Judith Lewis Herman, an American psychiatrist, said “Many abused children cling to the hope that growing up will bring escape and freedom.” This quote seems to ring-true in “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke. My Papa’s Waltz is one of Theodore Roethke’s most widely known poems. Poetry is oral or literary works that are in condensed or compressed form to convey emotion or ideas. Poems are created to express the thoughts and emotions of the writer. It frequently relies on their effect on imagery, word association, and the musical qualities of the language used. Readers are uncertain about the theme of Theodore Roethke’s ‘My Papa’s Waltz’. Some believe that the poem is a memory of a happy exchange between a father and son, while others believe it has darker undertones. The more plausible explanation is that it contains a secret theme of abuse. Child abuse could be considered the theme because of the hints of alcoholism, a mothers’ distaste for what is occurring, and damage to the kitchen and the child. Careful analysis of the keywords and stanzas back up the theory of child abuse caused by a destructive and intoxicated father. The setting, imagery, and word selection allows the reader to understand the cruelty the little boy endures after his father returns from work.
My Papa’s Waltz is a lyric poem. Theodore Roethke wrote this poem in 1942. The poem is about an exchange between a father and son in a kitchen. The entire story is told from the viewpoint of the writer remembering a moment from his childhood. The story of the alcoholic father dancing with his child around the room, holding him roughly and beating time on his head, might be interpreted in a positive and negative way. A rough and hard-working man, that loves his son and wants to have fun being with him, or this is a story of a drunkard neglecting and abusing his child. The poem follows an alternate rhyme scheme with the occasional slant written in the poem. The meter is an iambic trimeter, a weak syllable followed by strong syllable with three stressed syllables per line to make the poem very easy. There are three stressed syllables in a line resembling an actual waltz, which has three beats. The poem contains four stanzas containing quatrains. The poem’s setting is in the kitchen, the life of the house, especially in 1942. “But I hung on like death” is an example of a simile in the poem. Some lines give us background information as well. Theodore Roethke’s father owned a greenhouse, which explains in line 10 why his hand is cakes in dirt.
One reason why “My Papa’s Waltz” theme is abuse is because the father is an alcoholic. At the beginning of the poem, we immediately see hints of alcoholism. “The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy” indicates that the father was drinking heavily. The father was drinking so much that his breath was causing his son to feel some of the effects of alcohol. As soon as the father comes home from work you can smell the alcohol on his breath. Symptoms of alcohol abuse include impulsivity, poor self-control, and abnormal brain responses to activating stimuli. Many people become argumentative when they drink and some combative. Alcoholism can cause the drinker to act out. In the poem, the father is taking his anger out on his son. The mother is helpless and can only muster up a frown in fear she will be next. Alcoholism isn’t just a user problem, alcoholism affects others as well. The victims of alcoholism are a multitude of people: spouse, children, other relatives, bosses, fellow workers, pedestrians, drivers, police, judges, physicians who get called late at night, taxpayers who often pick up the bill for treatment, and other innocent and not so innocent people who cross the alcoholic’s path. In the poem, we see three characters: a child, a father, and a mother. However, it is the mother’s reaction that truly sets the theme as sinister. Many might think a smile would be more appropriate for a ‘happy’ occasion. If the poem was about a happy father and son waltzing, the mother would not be frowning. “My mother’s countenance / Could not unfrown itself.” clearly shows the reader that the mom is not okay with what is going on. This only solidifies that this is not a happy memory. In the second stanza, the writer gives the reader insight of how the father was knocking over pans and shelves. Waltzing does not involve repeated destruction of the house. The mother is in a seemingly helpless state of mind as the father continues to destroy the house. It is very clear that she is upset, as her husband carries on his destructive behavior. Her frown proves that she is not only saddened by his actions but is powerless to stop him. The mother is possibly in denial, a defense mechanism. Someone who is dependent frightened and themselves the victim of abuse, can remain silent and not even see or hear the abuse in order to maintain the desperately needed relationship with the abuser. This supports the abuse aspect because she would not be frowning if it was a happy exchange between father and son.
Although he has unconditional love for his father, that love cannot mask those imperfections. His father was a drunkard and perhaps because Roethke leads with this in the poem, the drunkenness is the reason for the abuse. Lines 1 and 2 establish that Papa is drunk, which is a situation that can lead to violence. Line 3 is an example of a simile, because the boy hung on ‘like’ death. The son hangs on like death because he fears what his father’s actions will do to him. Lines 5 and 6 explain that the abuse was so awful, that pots and pans were falling off the shelves. The next two lines show the mothers’ disapproval as well. The father’s hand is battered from hitting something. His bruised knuckle could be from the father hitting the child or punching a cabinet or pan in the kitchen. ‘Battered’ is an intense word to use for a hurt hand and implies some lurking violence. The belt also reminds us of how belts have often been used to punish children. The child cannot get away from the father and is getting hit with his father’s belt. ‘Beat’ fits with the word ‘battered’, which was used to describe the father’s knuckles. Throughout this poem, subtle word choices create an undercurrent of violence. Fighting is also known as dancing, but this waltz took a dark turn.
In conclusion, ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ is not a poem about a happy encounter between father and son, but a poem about the sinister things that goes on in his home. Theodore Roethke writes about a boy who gets abused when his father comes home but changes the tone of the poem into a happy memory of a ‘waltz’. Evidence in the poem such as lines 9 and 10 show the reader two sides for a story that is a misdirect for what is really going on. ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ story of an alcoholic father abusing his child day by day. The mother is powerless and cannot stop her husband’s actions in fear of her safety. In the poem, we see clear signs of alcoholism, child abuse, and a helpless mother. In the future, society should look for these signs, so that the incident in this poem will not happen to others.
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