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Literary Analysis of The Poem My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke

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Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz” is told from a perspective of a young child who has to experience the drunken actions of his father. This poem touches on the issue of child abuse as the poem goes on to describe the acts of violence from a father towards his child. The poem does not make the story seem more pleasant as it states the true events that occurred without sugarcoating any of the information. This poem gives insight into the life that this child has to live through on a constant basis and the terrible effects that alcohol can cause to a family with an alcoholic parent.

The first stanza of the poem introduces the context of the events happening later on in the story. Throughout the poem, the author uses end rhyme to emphasize the events taking place. In the first stanza for example, the author rhymes “breath” with “death”. The speaker says “But I hung on like death:” to express how he feels breathing in the toxic smell of his father’s alcoholic breath and he uses a simile to stress the fact that it’s so hard to breathe with the smell of whiskey invading his senses. The author uses this figurative language to compare the speaker’s situation to a sort of dance where there is a constant movement of back and forth for someone to gain control to take the lead in the dance. The characters are not actually dancing but they are in a sort of struggle where the boy is trying to cling onto his father while the father is walking around and it is like they are “waltzing”.

The second stanza of this poem describes the events occurring in a way that makes the reader have a better understanding. “We romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf;” (lines 5-6) creates a vivid image of a father and his son stumbling around in the kitchen as the father beats his son so harshly that even the pans on the kitchen shelf are falling down. This imagery helps lead the reader to add their own details into the picture, such as blood and bruises possibly forming as the father hits his son and the sounds of the pans crashing into the ground. The imagery is further expanded as the author finally mentions the mother who seems to have been present inferring from “My mother’s countenance / Could not unfrown itself.” The reader is now able to imagine the mother standing off to the side unhappy and helpless in doing anything as she watches her husband beat their son. In this stanza, the speaker uses end rhyme with the words “shelf” and “itself” to once again put more emphasis into the story.

The third stanza opens up with a more detailed insight into the specifics of what exactly the drunk father was doing to his son. “The hand that held my wrist / Was battered on one knuckle;” (lines 9-10) indicates that while one of the father’s hand was keeping the boy still, the other one was beating him until his knuckles started to bruise. The end rhyme included in this stanza were between the words “knuckle” and “buckle” to highlight the actions taking place as the speaker was beaten by his father’s knuckles and kept being dragged against his father’s belt buckle as he clung onto him.

As mentioned in the last stanza, “Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt” (lines 15-16) it is shown how once the father was done beating his son, he just put him to bed without a second thought. The son was clinging onto his father’s shirt as if still seeking his affection even though his father had beaten him horribly. The author manages to convey a deep sadness through his tone and use of end rhyme to emphasize the terrible events that the boy had to endure. End rhyme helped to really emphasize the important parts of the story and the way that the poem was written showed a strong sense of disconnectedness and sadness.

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Literary Analysis Of The Poem My Papa’s Waltz By Theodore Roethke. (2021, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from
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