My Papa*s Waltz

My Papa’s Waltz
Theodore Roethke (1908 – 1963)
• Born in Saginaw, Michigan, Roethke was the son of a
greenhouse owner.
• Greenhouses figure prominently in the imagery of his poems.
• He graduated magna cum laude from the University of
Michigan in 1929, where he also earned an M.A. in 1936 after
graduate study at Harvard.
• He taught at several universities, coached two varsity tennis
teams, and settled at the University of Washington in 1947.
• Intensely introspective and demanding of himself, Roethke
was renowned as a great teacher, though sometimes
incapacitated by an on-going manic-depressive condition.
• His collection The Waking: Poems
1933-1953, won the Pulitzer Prize in
• Other awards include Guggenheim
Fellowships in 1945 and 1950, and a
National Book Award and the
Bollingen Prize in 1959 for Words for
the Wind (1958).
Not about physical abuse!!!
• Roethke had a deep, almost religious respect for his
• This respect was religious (in a Christian sense) because
Roethke had an admiration for his father’s ability, yet he
was fearful of his strength.
• According to Malkoff, Roethke once saw his father bring a
couple of poachers to a halt with his rifle and then go
and slap their faces for interrupting his work.
• "Otto Roethke, a Prussian through and through, was
strong and firm, but his strength was, for his son, a
source of both admiration and fear, of comfort and
restriction" (Malkoff 4).
• This fear, combined with the love and awe-inspired
dependency that a son has for his father, comes out clearly in
the poem.
My Papa’s Waltz
• Papa = Father
• Waltz = dance
LINE 1 & 2
Playing around
does not portray him
as a stumbling drunk
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
slant rhymes
Emphasizes the irony of line 4.
Speaker uses three-syllable
and four-syllable patterns in
the meter to emphasize the
waltz: “The WHISkey on your
BREATH / Could MAKE a small
boy DIZzy.”
LINE 3 & 4
not "waltzing" in the
conventional sense;
they are horse-playing
He was having fun and
did not want to fall off
-Speaker’s father presents danger, he “hangs
on” for dear life. The word death is thus ironic,
it makes the danger of the situation clear.
-The waltz should be easy, the speaker is just
being swung around by his father. It isn’t easy
because their lives together aren’t easy.
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
slant rhymes
Gentle sound of the repeated “w”
contrasts with simile about death in
line 3 and with the characterization
of the waltz as “not easy.” The
alliteration makes the waltz sound
natural and tranquil.
DICTION (words)
More precise ways to describe the dance, a child
would not use a more sophisticated vocabulary.
LINE 3 & 4
Someone must lead in a waltz the father’s dominance over his
child. It is not the fact that the
child is being led, but instead the
way the father is leading that
makes the dance “not easy.”
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
Introduces death to emphasize the danger of the
situation or the darker side of the “waltz”. Gives
the child a power outside of human agency,
which is the only way to have power over the
father. Death “hangs on” in the sense that it is
permanent, and perhaps the child wants to
freeze this moment for fear of what will happen
if he or she lets go.
LINE 5 & 6
The word romped here is ironic
because it makes the waltz sound
carefree, yet the effect of this
romping is to cause a violent,
crashing disruption in their domestic
To play in a happy
and noisy way
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
slant rhymes
LINE 7 & 8
Could stop frowning if she chose to
– angry because her pots and pans
were flying around, but was really
trying not to laugh at the
spectacle of father and son
dancing together.
Signal a change in the poem: countenance
is an unusual word for facial expression,
unfrown is a made-up word.
- Her disapproval of this scene and her
apparent inability to do anything about
it except scowl intensify the danger of
the situation.
- There is an audience for the tragedy.
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The sharp sound
of the repeated
slant rhymes
“c” gives a hard
edge to an
Brief description of
the speaker’s mother otherwise
gracefulis a warning, or
signal of danger (like sounding stanza.
the same hard “c” in
the parental
command “careful!”)
LINE 9 & 10
Hand holding a wrist more aggressive and
domineering than a hand holding a hand.
1. difference in size of their hands
2. child waltzes unwillingly
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
Hand battered on one knuckle
because of the hard work
involved in running a
Connotes violence.
Battered is
different from
milder words like
wounded. The
father seems
potentially violent.
Gentle protective sound of “hand . . .
held,” in sharp contrast with battered
knuckle and scraped ear that
dominate the imagery of this stanza.
LINE 11 & 12
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
Second half of the poem does
not precisely repeat the
metrical pattern of the first
half of the poem, suggests
that the father misses some
LINE 13 & 14
The word beat is rougher than
kept (as in “kept time”), recalls
the word battered of previous
stanza. This hand is not only dirty
but hard, more a club than a
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
hard work involved in
running a greenhouse.
Word hard disrupts the poem’s
otherwise perfect meter. The speaker
has tried to render (save) his father’s
dance but his father’s drunken
missteps make it impossible to do so.
LINE 15 & 16
Waltzed figuratively and literally, to
bed. The poem indicates early on
that the waltz is not easy, and yet it
ends with the comfort and stability
of bed.
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
Breathless and happy after
horsing around with his
father, does not want to go
to bed but desires to stay
with him.
Second half of the poem (line 9-16)
is generally tougher, with short,
hard-sounding words and true end
rhyme (e.g. dirt-shirt) There are no
slant rhymes here; the structure is
less relaxed, which leaves the
reader feeling tense and uneasy.
• Word order of the poem tends to move from lighthearted words (BEGINNING) to more ominous ones
(END) , the poem is too ambiguous to let us pass
judgment so easily.
• The overall effect is to sway the reader’s emotions
violently, as in a drunken waltz.
• Domestic violence
• Family relationships
• Love between father and child

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