Friday, November 2, 2007

"My Papa's Waltz"

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)

Audio of "My Papa's Waltz"

Theodore Roethke Biography

Theodore Huebner Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1908. His father Otto Roethke and uncle owned a local greenhouse. As a child, he spent much time there observing nature. His impressions of the natural world contained there would later profoundly influence the subjects and imagery of his verse ( After his father died in 1923 of cancer, this moment shaped his creative and artistic outlooks. Roethke attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, graduating magna cum laude, even though his family wanted him to study law he quit after one semester. From 1929 to 1931, he began taking graduate courses at the University of Michigan and the Harvard Graduate School. There he met and worked with poet Robert Hillyer. While teaching at Lafayette College he began his first book, Open House it was published and released in 1941. Roethke was hospitalized for a mental illness after this he found it useful for writing. In 1936 he began teaching at Pennsylvania State University. After being there for seven years he was published in journals as Poetry, the New Republic, the Saturday Review, and Sewanee Review. Roethke was influenced by other poets such as, Emily Dickinson, William Blake, and Elinor Wylie. In 1953 he married Beatrice O’Connell, where they met at Bennington. In 1962 he was appointed poet in residence in addition to being professor of English. Awards and honors were frequent during these years, including a Pulitzer Prize (1953), the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award (1958), and even a posthumous National Book Award for his last poems, The Far Field(1964) (Gale). Theodore Roethke died of a heart attack in 1963.

"My Papa's Waltz" Analysis

In the poem "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke, the speaker is reflecting on a childhood experience involving his father. Some people think that this poem is one of a happy relationship between a father and son. Other people believe that this poem has a hidden message of parental abuse. In my point of view, the imagery and language, the symbolism, and tone in the poem gave me the impression of the love between the father and son, not of an abusive relationship. You may get the reaction of abuse because; the line, “whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy” suggests the dance was not a joyful one. Also lines, “hung on like death”, and “beat time on my head” might even lead the reader to think the father is abusive to the boy. But really what this poem is about, a father comes home drunk and happy and starts to dance the waltz with his son. In line 3, “but I hung on like death”, the boy hung onto his shirt not because of fear but he didn’t want to fall of while dancing with his father. And if the child was getting beat his mother would have reacted more than just a frown, “my mother’s countenance could not unfrown itself” (Line 7-8) the mother was angry because her pots and pans were flying everywhere, but was trying not to laugh at the father and son. Roethke’s father Otto Roethke hands were rough and dirty “With a palm caked hard by dirt” (Line 13) because he worked in a greenhouse, not because he would always abuse the child. The young boy is breathless because of all the playing around with his father. In line 15, “still clinging to your shirt” the boy is holding onto his father’s shirt because he doesn’t want to go to bed and continue to play with his father. As you can see the poem does not suggest an abusive environment, but is a strong bond of love and playfulness between father and son.

Works Cited

Gale, Thomson. "Theodore Roethke." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. 1998. Biography Resource Center. Gale Research. Indian River Community College Library, Port St. Lucie, FL. 2007 <>.

Roethke, Theodore. “My Papa’s Waltz.” Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. Eds. Thomas R. Arp and Grey Johnson. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. 997-998.

"Theodore Roethke." Poets.Org. 4 November 2007.<>.