Childhood experiences seem to be the ones that are recollected most vividly throughout a person's life. Almost everyone can remember some aspect of his or her childhood experiences, pleasant and unpleasant alike. Theodore Roethke's poem "My Papa's Waltz" suggests even further that this concept could be true. The dance described in this poem illustrates an interaction between father and child that contains more than the expected joyous, loving attitude between the two characters. Roethke's tone in this work exhibits the blended, yet powerful emotions that he, as a grown man, feels when looking back on this childhood experience. The author somewhat implicates feelings of resentment fused with a loving reliance with his father.
For example, the first two lines of the poem read: "The whiskey on your breath/ Could make a small boy dizzy;" (Roethke 668). This excerpt appears to set a dark sort of mood for the entire rest of the poem. By the first two lines, the reader may already see how this man feels about his father's drunkenness. It seems as if Roethke has preceded his poem with this factor in order to demonstrate the resentment that he feels toward his father.
However, the last two lines of the poem suggest feelings other than resentment: "Then waltzed me off to bed/ Still clinging to your shirt" (Roethke 668). By mentioning the fact that his father put him to bed, Roethke seems to show affectionate feelings
involved in this dance. He shows his caring feelings in the last line by using the words "still clinging". "Certainly, this small boy's family life has its frightening side, but the last line suggests the boy is still clinging to his father with persistent if also complicated love" (Kennedy and Gioia 668). Although their dance appears to be "comic", Roethke seems to possess "an odd and ambivalent closeness" to his apparently intoxicated father (Balakian 62).
Still even more evidence of these mixed feelings is illustrated in the third stanza. "This love dance, a kind of blood rite between father and son, shows suppressed terror combined with awe-inspired dependency" (Balakian 62). "The hand that held my wrist/was battered on one knuckle;/ At every step you missed/ My right ear scraped a buckle"(Roethke 668). The speaker's father's hand being "battered on one knuckle" is indicative of a man who...
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... quite demonstrative of how
powerful his feelings for his father must have been. "…Roethke tried, through careful revisions to balance negative and positive tones in 'My Papa's Waltz'" (McKenna 36).
Although the dance between him and his father was rough and aggressive, the very fact that Roethke chose to write about the waltz indicates that it is a special moment he remembers sharing with his father. The poet has a remarkable ability to describe the moment and not his feelings. This is what makes "My Papa's Waltz" so interesting and leaves so much to interpretation.
Balakian, Peter. Theodore Roethke's Far Fields. Baton Rouge: Louisiana
State University Press, 1989.
Gioia, Dana, & Kennedy, X. J. (Eds.). (1999). Literature: An Introduction to Fiction,
Poetry, and Drama. 7th Edition. New York, NY: Longman.
McKenna, John J. "Roethke's Revisions and the Tone of 'My Papa's Waltz'". ANQ
Spring 1998: v11n2. Online. Galileo. 21 October 1999.
Roethke, Theodore. "My Papa's Waltz"., Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry,
And Drama. Ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 7th Ed. New York, NY:
Longman, 1999. 668.
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