Psychologists argue that fathers should be always available when their male children are growing up. They must strive to be role models to the boys and help them grow up to be responsible men in society. This argument raises many questions.
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For example, what happens when the father is irresponsible? Must the boy adore the father even when he is always doing the wrong thing? Theodore Roethke presents this conflict in a more realistic way in his poem My Papa’s Waltz. This paper examines this poem in terms of the way it presents this message, its sound effects, its rhetorical devices and all its structural aspects.
The title, My Papa’s Waltz, raises suspense in the reader. It is difficult to tell from the title whether the persona acknowledges or disapproves of his father’s waltzes. Many dictionaries define a waltz as a progressive ballroom dance whose performance takes place in a closed place. Many people do not expect a father to dance in front of his son.
Therefore, the readers look forward to understanding the theme of the poem after reading the first line. However, reading the first line and the second line, “The whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy”, further confuses the reader. At this point, the audience expects the persona to be very disappointed with his father to the point of not associating with him. Roethke unravels his main argument step by step as the poem progresses.
Roethke divides the poem into four stanzas, and each of them carries one idea. The first stanza gives the description of the persona’s father and what the persona thinks about him. It describes the father as being drunk to the point of making the boy dizzy with his breath. Surprisingly, his son does not stop being close to him.
He continues dancing with him. The last line hints at the difficulty of the waltzing, but the persona’s tone indicates his readiness to continue dancing with his father. The second stanza describes the damage and the disorder the father and his son cause in the kitchen as they dance: “We romped until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf.” Their dancing displeases the persona’s mother, but there is nothing she can do to stop them.
She just lets them continue with their waltzing. At this point, the audience expects the persona to disengage from his father’s grip because he fears annoying his mother. The third stanza describes the father’s hands and how he manhandles his son in the course of the dance. The first line and the second line of this stanza state, “The hand that held my wrist was battered on one knuckle.” These lines imply that the persona’s father is a manual worker.
He uses hand tools that have disfigured his hands. The third line and fourth one state, “At every step you missed, my ear scraped a buckle.” The third line describes the movements of the persona’s father. He struggles to walk properly due to the influence of the alcohol he took before coming back home. The fourth line alludes to the persona’s height. He is short to the extent of his ears touching his father’s buckle.
The fourth stanza describes how the father manhandles his son before taking him to bed. He “beat time on his head with a palm caked hard by dirt.” Even after all these mistreatments, the boy still “clings to his shirt.” The four stanzas harmoniously work together in describing the persona’s nostalgic memories about his deceased father. They all imply that he enjoyed dancing with his drunken father despite his mistreatment.
Most of the images in the poem describe the drunkenness of the father and the job he does. Line one portrays him a serious alcoholic. He drinks so much whiskey that his breath can make a small boy dizzy. However, the boy “still hung on like death.” He compares his enjoyment of his father’s company to death.
This image describes the way Roethke felt when his father died while he was still a young boy. It reiterates the overriding nostalgia in the poem. In line fourteen, the persona describes his father’s palms as “caked hard by dirt.” This image implies that his father was working in a place where he interacted with dirt and used his hands on hard objects that eventually hardened his hands (Gioia, n.d.).
The rhyme scheme in the poem emphasizes the waltzing the persona describes in his narration. The poem rhymes abab, cdcd, efef, ghgh. The boy disregards the effect of his father’s breath and clings on his father like death. The breath can make him dizzy, and the dance that ensues is not easy. The rolling of the pans “frowns” the persona’s mother’s countenance. Pans and countenance are approximate rhymes but still bring out the picture of what happens to the persona’s mother.
His father’s injured knuckle on his wrist makes him fear whenever his father missed a step. He hits a buckle every time it happens. This dance is a romp. It is not just an ordinary waltz. It is very violent. The father does not take his son to bed like a friend. He waltzes him to bed. His violence must be the reason he has a battered knuckle. These sound devices are very important in emphasizing the violent nature of the dance.
The drunkenness of the persona’s father and his violence produces a mixture of feelings in his son. The persona’s tone is very contemptuous at the beginning of the poem. He sounds tired with his father’s breath: “the whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy”.
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However, as the poem continues, the persona’s tone changes to nostalgia. It becomes clear that he misses the good times he spent with his father: “we romped until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf”. At the end of the poem, the tone is a mixture of pain and nostalgia: “then waltzed me to bed still clinging on your shirt”. Therefore, the persona’s tone is nostalgic despite the pain he underwent in the hands of his father.
Roethke suggests that fathers should try to be responsible because their sons love them despite their weaknesses. Being responsible inspires their sons to grow up as responsible individuals while the lack of a sense of responsibility negatively affects the children. The poet brings out this conflict in the poem by portraying a son who hates his father’s weaknesses, but still likes his dances and wishes he was always around to dance with him. Therefore, Roethke agrees with the psychologists that fathers are the first role models of their male children.
Gioia, Diana (n.d.). The art of Poetry (p. 511-513)