The Actual Meaning of My Papa's Waltz by Theodore Roethke Essay example

The Actual Meaning of My Papa's Waltz by Theodore Roethke Essay example

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The Actual Meaning of "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke


Poetry is made to express the feelings, thoughts, and emotions of the poet. The reader can interpret the poem however they see fit. Critics are undecided about the theme of Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz." Some people believe that the poem is one of a happy exchange between a father and son. The more convincing interpretation is that it has a hidden message of parental abuse. Careful analysis of the keywords and each individual stanza back up this theory of child abuse by a violent and drunken father.

The word that is key to the poem is romp. Roethke states that "we romped until the pans / slid from the kitchen shelf" (5-6). The word is usually associated with happy, boisterous, and energetic running around or dancing. A second definition is rough, lively play. Alcohol would cause a person to act in such a harsh manner. In athletics, a romp is an easy victory over an easy opponent. This means one side is clearly superior and beats the competition with fury and ease. The father could be viewed as a dominating and overpowering force to a small child. The younger son could not possible fight back to his bigger father especially with the added influence of liquor. Further reading of the poem will back up that meaning of the poem is to illustrate parental abuse.

The first stanza sets the scene with clear imagery. The father appears to be in a heavily drunken state because the son can smell the "whiskey on your breath" (1). The reader knows the drinking is excessive because it almost made the boy dizzy. Clearly, the father is in a heavenly drunken state because someone else is feeling the effects of his drinking. Critics will ague that the son was enjoying ...


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... is a happy time between a father and his child. Through careful reading, that interpretation is not valid. In 1948, actions such as this may have been a part of life. Maybe that is why Roethke wrote the poem this way because the event was probably happening in many households and people then could identify with this. Because of the vivid imagery, the reader can feel the boy's pain and fear of his father. In this case, the waltz is not a bonding time between a father and his son. People now would identify with the son and find a hatred for the father because of the mental and physical toll this could have on a child. The father does his dance by "waltzing" all over his son.

Works Cited

Roethke, Theodore. "My Papa's Waltz." Discovering Literature: Stories, Poems, Plays. Ed. Hans P. Guth and Gabriel L. Rico. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997, 536.

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