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Theodore Roethke’s Reflection of His Childhood Experience in My Papa’s Waltz

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In Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”, the author is reflecting on his childhood experience involving his father while capturing the theme of parental abuse, through the use of symbolism and other literary devices. Peculiar characters are always considered in Literature, especially when examining the influence of a character’s nature in a short poem, in relation to other characters. “My Papa’s Waltz” is an inspired childhood modern poem from the early 1940s which illustrates a kitchen scene of a tipsy father waltzing with his young son. The ambiguous form of the poem is presented from the standpoint of the protagonist the son who recollects a childhood moment that entails both positive and negative results of interacting with a clumsy mannered father. In Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”, the author is reflecting on his childhood experience involving his father while capturing the theme of parental abuse, through the utilization of symbolism and visual imagery. This essay will explore the author’s depiction of the loving yet conflicted relationship between the father and his son, as well as how the occurred events shine light into the characterization of both subjects, expressed through the viewpoint of the protagonist.

Roethke hints at the symbolism of violence by alluding to the aggressive nature of Papa due to his drunken state throughout the poem. While there is no overt hint at abuse, violent tension is portrayed by the father towards his son. This theme can be depicted in the third stanza where the son noticed a “battered” knuckle on the hand that clenched onto his wrist. The negatively connotated term “battered” generally implies the lurking of suffering in a situation where violence was present. As supported in the following line, the son describes his experiences of his ear scraping a buckle whenever his father missed a step. This paints a picture of subtle yet unintentional violence in a serious situation as the son is waltz around the room by his father. Additionally, some consonance terms throughout the poem such as ‘knuckle and buckle’, ‘dirt and shirt’, and ‘breath and death’ are usually associated with aggression, as well the ending of life, hence contributing to the symbol of violence within the father’s behavior.

Roethke appeals to imagery to create an illustration of the occurring events during the waltz between the father and his son in order to create a clear understanding of their conflicted relationship. In the fourth stanza, the boy says, “You beat time on my head with a palm caked hard by dirt”. The term “palm caked” creates a visual interpretation of the father as a hardworking labor man who tends to take out his anger on his son, and in a way correlates to his aggressive and dominant nature. Furthermore, the poet utilizes tactile imagery as the term “beat” illustrates the physical pain that his son endures by the hard and caked hand, thus demonstrating both the abusive and negative connotation in the scene. The father beating time on his head highlights the reality of the son’s childhood disappearing as a result of witnessing his unstable father, as well as experiencing the physical suffering of his hand. It can also be interpreted that the beating of time had caused the son to mature faster than he was supposed to in order to escape his father’s violent character. Lastly, the poet includes olfactory imagery when the boy describes his father’s whiskey breath. The son is able to provide the readers with an insight into the deep state of his father’s drunkenness as his breath “could make a small boy dizzy”. It is also used as a metaphor to describe the strong alcoholic breath of the father, thus hinting that he is highly intoxicated.

The critical analysis of this essay reveals that the poem ‘Papa’s Waltz’ was reflected through the perspective of the son and captured the peculiar waltz between a drunken father and his loving son. Additionally, the poem addresses the occurrences which ultimately provide an insight into the nature of their character. From this understanding, it can be determined that the intent of the poet was not to focus on the ongoing events within the poem but to capture how those events both shaped and influenced the nature and behavior of the subjects.

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Theodore Roethke’s Reflection Of His Childhood Experience In My Papa’s Waltz. (2021, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from
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