My papa’s waltz is a poem that tells us of a moment shared by a father and his son. Theodore Roethke, in his poem ‘My papa’s waltz’, uses imagery, wordplay and symbolism to create a tone of nostalgia and pain in his discussion of the theme of family.
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The speaker tells us about his papa’s waltz dance and it symbolizes the relationship he has with his father. The dance did not come easy for the young boy because his father was intoxicated as he talked of “The whiskey on your breath” (Roethke 1).
Furthermore, the speaker had to hold on to his father tightly “But I hung on like death” (Roethke 3) even though his dad’s breath reeked of alcohol, and was enough to make him dizzy. He says they romped and the pans fell on the floor from the shelf. Perhaps he was afraid of his father and loved him at the same time and being a small boy he did not have much choice, but dance with his father.
Moreover, the use of imagery in the poem shows that the speaker experienced some pain in the family. For instance, the simile “But I hung on like death” (Roethke 3) shows that the boy had to hold the dad tightly because he was drunk to avoid falling.
The fact that the father was drunk means he could hurt the small boy unintentionally as he missed his steps as they romped. The mention of the word ”death” shows some fear in the relationship between father and son because drunkenness could lead to violence. However, violence is not mentioned explicitly in the poem.
The wordplay technique the poet employs in the poem show that the speaker loved his father, but he also feared him. His father who towered above him and the speaker had to obey him. The boy had to waltz with his father and as they did so, he hit his right ear on his father’s buckle because he was a small one. He could not resist the dance even though it was not easy with the father missing steps.
Besides, his mother’s expression showed she was not pleased with the pans falling on the floor and she was afraid of her son to be hurt during the dance. The speaker says “You beat time on my head” (Roethke 13) to show that his father may have hurt him by hitting him on the head and he may have endured such kind of incidences in his childhood.
The speaker seems to be pointing out things that happened in their relationship with the parent. However, the speaker also shows that his father was a man who made an effort to create some time and play with him even if it was at night before he went to bed.
The small boy treasured the memory of spending time with his father and remembered that dance with nostalgia. He did not want the waltz to end and clung on to his father’s shirt as they waltzed to bed.
Finally, the speaker tells us of the waltzing event with his father that left a trace in his life. He remembered his father’s whiskey breath and it shows that his father was a drunk, but still he enjoyed the little things such as the waltz dance. His mother might not have approved the dancing, but the speaker treasured the time spent with his father.
Roethke, Theodore. My papa’s waltz. 2013. Web, Poetry Foundation, 12 Nov.2013. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43330/my-papas-waltz>.