"My Papa’s Waltz" by Theodore Roethke; a Happy Or Traumatic Memory

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Words: 600 |

Page: 1|

3 min read

Published: Nov 15, 2018

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Words: 600|Page: 1|3 min read

Published: Nov 15, 2018

“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke; a happy or traumatic memory
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The essay explores Theodore Roethke's poem "My Papa's Waltz" and the various interpretations it can evoke in readers. The poem's meaning is subjective and can be viewed in different ways, with some readers seeing it as a portrayal of a happy interaction between a father and son, while others perceive hidden messages of parental abuse. The essay argues that the imagery, language, symbols, and tone of the poem convey the love between the father and son rather than an abusive relationship.

The tone of the poem is seen as either playful or annoyed, reflecting the poet's complex emotions toward his father as an adult looking back on his childhood experiences. The poem's rhyme and rhythm create a deceptive sense of lightness and playfulness, but there are underlying harsh sounds that suggest deeper emotions. The title, "My Papa's Waltz," initially conveys an impression of easiness and grace, but the content reveals darker and more complex emotions within the father-son relationship.

The use of metaphor and symbolism in the poem, such as the line "I hung on like death," adds depth to the interpretation, suggesting a dance between love and resentment. Ultimately, the essay emphasizes that readers' personal experiences and perspectives can greatly influence their interpretation of the poem, making it either a happy memory or a reflection of childhood trauma.

In "My Papa’s Waltz" by Theodore Roethke, the interpretation of the poem depends on the readers perspective. It is a great poem that can mean many different things to many different people. Some people think that this poem is one of a happy exchange between a father and son. Other people believe that this poem has a hidden message of parental abuse. The imagery and language, the symbols and tone in the poem gave me the impression of the love between the father and son, not of an abusive relationship. To me I think it was just a boy who just wanted to spend time with his dad before he has to go to bed. The boy probably does not get to spend time with his dad that much.

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Firstly, the poetic tone is a perfect reflection of emotion that the poet feels towards his father. Generally, readers think the tone is either playful or annoyed. The poem consists of many sides of the tone. In life, growing up consists of realizing how childhood experiences made impressions on us as adults. Since, this is written in the role of an adult, mature thoughts and feelings are displayed rather than childish ones.

Secondly, the most open poetic form in "My Papa’s Waltz" is of sound: rhyme and rhythm, which can be misleading elements. Roethke created the pleasant rhythm which makes the poem sound short and sweet. The rhyme further trances the reader into believing that the tone of the poem is light and playful. However, this rhyme and rhythm is deceiving. In the poem there is something not quite sound with pleasant memory in the harsh sounds. The rhyming scheme utilizes repetition in which the rhyming words are not completely identical such as "dizzy" and "easy" (Roethke 2,4). These slight limitations reflect the speaker’s feelings towards his father. Although he has unconditional love for his father, that love cannot mask those limitations.

Thirdly, the poetic language in "My Papa’s Waltz" is so precise, that it can actually make for more debate on the meaning of the poem. Basically, it has controversial interpretations because words alone have different meanings. Starting with the title, "My Papa’s Waltz" discloses what the poem is about. The waltz means an easiness and grace, and the word Papa is used which connotes an extreme closeness and admiration. Like the popular phrase goes, "Don’t judge a book by its cover," one should not judge this poem by its title. Although the title conveys lightness, the content draws darkness and perversion.

Another form of poetic language is metaphor which can be a useful tool in revealing the emotion in this poem, especially since it is difficult to detect. The only symbol, a type of metaphor, in the poem suggests the most haunting notion with: "I hung on like death" (3). This introduces the reader to a darker thought, further confirming that there is an emotional tone. In the scope of things, "My Papa’s Waltz" is an image for the father-son relationship in the poem. The waltz represents the dance between love and resentment between the father and son.

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In short, one’s personal experiences with his or her father or father figures may influence them to interpret "My Papa’s Waltz" to be strictly a happy or traumatic memory. Just like many relationships, people may only see the good on the outside, however, the relationship may be broken on the inside. Each literary element helps to build the illusion that the memory is in admiration of the father, but seeing through that illusion allows the reader to see the abuse the speaker endured in his childhood.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

Cite this Essay

“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke; a happy or traumatic memory. (2018, October 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 27, 2024, from
““My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke; a happy or traumatic memory.” GradesFixer, 26 Oct. 2018,
“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke; a happy or traumatic memory. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 Feb. 2024].
“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke; a happy or traumatic memory [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Oct 26 [cited 2024 Feb 27]. Available from:
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