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High upon a pedestal sits a rough and ragged man. With calloused hands and skin of leather, to most he is nothing more than an ordinary laborer, but to the small eyes tracking his every move he is a king. His dirty ball cap is a crown, his stained clothes are made of the finest material and encrusted with jewels, his worn out shoes are the finest of boots. In the eyes of that child, his father is nothing less than magnificent and incapable of any wrong. While words cannot properly define the unconditional love that a child has for his father, the tone and imagery that Theodore Roethke uses in his poem, “My Papa’s Waltz” has a beautiful way of describing it.
Roethke first uses imagery in order to draw the reader in and enable them to envision the scene that is painted before them. By initially mentioning the whiskey on his Papa’s breath, Roethke begins to paint a picture of his father as being rough around the edges. He then introduces himself as a “small child” hanging on to his Papa like he was never going to let go while they dance throughout the family’s home. The initial reaction of reader based off of the imagery is a negative one and it isn’t until the tone is set that the reader can see the true theme of the Roethke’s words. While image of the mother having a “countenance” that “could not unfrown itself” and all of the steps which his father is missing continue to support the negative connotations, the fact that the boy clings to his father throughout the waltz and never lets go sets the tone as a very positive one. Regardless of being scraped by a buckle when his father stumbles or having “time beat on [his] head”, the boy remains “clinging” to his Papa’s shirt. The mother probably sees the father as being drunk and unnecessarily rough housing with the child. However, to the father and son lost in the waltz, it is a moment where the unconditional love between the two shines through the outward situation.
The bond between a father and child is unconditional. It does not matter what the pair looks like or where they are, the fact that they will always be there for each other regardless of the circumstance is enough to keep the love alive and strong. Roethke uses imagery to set the tone in “My Papa’s Waltz” and then allows for both elements together to create the theme that shows the unwavering and unconditional love between a Papa and his son.
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