The poem “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke is a work rich in ambiguities, which are shown through the language used in the work as well as in the relationship between the speaker and his father. Readers can detect two sides to this poem. One side being a loving memory of the speaker’s father, and the other being a memory of a fearful encounter with the speaker’s father. Roethke takes the role of the speaker, looking back at a memory of his own childhood with his father. The poem, however, shows that it is neither one-sidedly loving or fearful, but a mixture of both, showing “Roethke’s ambivalent feelings toward his father, Otto Roethke, whose ‘strength was…a source of both admiration and fear, of comfort and restriction’” (McKenna)
At first glance, the reader gets the impression that the poem will likely be a cheerful poem about a loving relationship between a father and son. However, once one reads through the poem, the reader may question the title, seeing some violent language throughout the piece and some confusing emotions. The use of the word “Papa” in the title suggests a loving tone of a son that holds his father very dear, and readers agree that there is a loving tone portrayed in the poem, with a few mixed in emotions. One critic writes that “Roethke’s poetic genius lay in his ability to make his words become an event, to arrange them in such a way as to create in their reading the sweep and energy of dynamic life. This quality shows up most clearly when the energy finds its way blocked by obstacles or when its motion and sweet are set off against the perfect stillness of death” (Blessing). Roethke wrote this poem as an elegy for his father, who died when Roethke was 14 years old (McRoberts), and the seemingly mixed emotions of the poem are shown here with Roethke trying to make a happy memory come to life, but it is being offset by death. One critic comments that “surely this was a moment characterized by conflicting emotions for the speaker: love and fright; excitement and concern; a rough tenderness” (McKenna).
If the reader chooses to look at the work as a loving poem to his father about an encounter that he had, the poem is full of love and happy memories. The poem is written in a lighter, loving way the sing-song rhyme scheme seems to fit perfectly. The way the poem is written is in a sort of waltzy rhythm that matches the waltz that the father and son are performing. The “rollicking rhythms of the poem; the playfulness of a rime like dizzy and easy” (Fong) give it a light, playful feeling. Even the way the poem rhymes in an A-B-A-B rhyme scheme suggests a sort of orderliness that could be portrayed in a happy orderly family.
Many readers interpret the first line of the poem as negative in stating that “The whiskey on [the father’s] breath / could make a small boy dizzy” (Roethke 1-2). Whiskey on one’s breath is not usually spoken about in a manner that would suggest happiness, but instead of drunkenness and possibly violence. However, a father stopping by the bar after work before coming home was, and still is very prominent and whiskey a popular drink of choice, making the father giddy and able to show his love for his son more freely, being “tipsy enough so that exuberance and love could slip through” (Fong). A drunken father can also confuse small children, leading to the notes of fear and confusion in the lines of the poem.
The next two lines of the poem hold a touch of ambiguity in that while the boy “hung on like death” (Roethke 3) to his father, which suggests that he needs his father’s love and support, the next line states that “Such waltzing was not easy” (Roethke 4). This makes the reader question whether the boy was holding on to his father out of love for his father, or of fear and that the boy’s father coming home in this drunken state was not an easy thing for the boy to handle or process. However, Roethke seemed to be relatively close to his father when he was young and “spent many hours in the greenhouses, following and helping his father in his work” (McRoberts), making it hard to assume that the lines only hold fear, but that they hold a great amount of love for his father. In the second stanza of the poem, Roethke writes that “We romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf” (Roethke 5-6). There is much ambiguity in these two lines and they have been interpreted in a violent way many times. However, this being an elegy to Roethke’s father, the lines do not make sense for them to hold violent tones. This could be seen as the father and son doing a literal waltz around the kitchen, the father having been drinking, making it a very clumsy dance and in turn accidentally knocking the pans from their shelves. Roethke chooses to use “the joyful suggestions of the words waltz, waltzing, and romped” (Fong) in the piece, the word “romped” in line five, which usually holds a playful connotation suggesting a playful wrestle, not something that is truly violent. Roethke writes “My mother’s countenance / Could not unfrown itself” (Roethke 7-8) in the next two lines suggesting that Roethke’s mother is not happy with the events unfolding in front of her. The mother in the poem could be seeing her husband coming home in a drunken stupor, messing up her kitchen and interrupting her son’s bedtime which would make any mother upset.
In the next stanza, the speaker states that “The hand on my wrist / was battered on one knuckle” (Roethke 9-10), a surprising thing for a small boy to notice, unless the boy was already confused about the interaction he was having with his father, in which case Roethke as a young child would notice that and feel that it was worth mentioning as it added to the confusion. The second half of the third stanza shows just how small the boy, or the speaker, is at the time of the events that are transpiring in the poem. With Otto Roethke dying when Theodore Roethke was only a young 14 years old, the poem is a look back before his father became sick with cancer (McRoberts), when he was still healthy enough to drink and “romp” around with his son. These lines could suggest that it is hard for the boy to keep up with the waltz as the pair dance around the house in that it states that “At every step [the boy] missed / [His] right ear scraped a buckle” (Roethke 11-12). It would be difficult for a child who is only as high as a grown man’s belt buckle to keep up with his strides, and because of this, the boy’s ear could be scraping his father’s belt buckle as they waltz. These lines also indicate that while the frolicking was fun, it was also painful for the boy, having his ear scraped, making the act a bit more frightening.
In the first line of the final stanza, it states “You beat time on my head” (Roethke 13). This line tends to make the reader question the innocence of the poem because of Roethke’s choice of the word “beat”. Typically, one would describe this action as tapping or stomping out time, and in Roethke’s first version of the poem he used the line “You kept time on my head”, later revising it to the word “beat” giving a more ominous, negative, more violent, tone to the line (McKenna). However, this could also just be Roethke’s way of describing how the speaker’s father kept the boy in time while in a waltz. With the father being drunk, it is possible that he could be “happily using his son’s head for a drum” (Fong), but tapping it a bit too hard unnoticing the pain that it is causing the boy, leading the word to become “beat” instead of something more innocent like “kept”. The next line describes the father’s hand as having “a palm caked hard by dirt”. A hand that is caked with dirt in relation to a father usually has the connotation that he is hard working which causes more ambiguity in the stanza. A hard working father usually means a father that has a lot of love for his family, and if one interprets the poem as having violent undertones, this line would not fit as well. Roethke’s father also spent a lot of time in his greenhouses, that were later sold after an argument with Roethke’s uncle (McRoberts). Roethke, having spent a lot of time in the greenhouses with his father as a child, would have wanted to incorporate the dirt that was left on the hands of his father, reminding him of the happy times that they spent together there.
The last two lines seem to hold the most love and affection for Roethke’s father. Instead of having a confusing, possibly frightened tone, these lines suggest purely love. The last two lines state that “[Roethke’s Father] then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt” (Roethke 15-16). Even if this poem does suggest notes of fear in the boy, in these lines the boy seems to love his father even with the confusing emotions that he experiences when the father comes home in his drunken stupor, as any young child would love a parent unconditionally. The last two lines of the poem are simply just the picture of a loving father waltzing his son off to bed with his son holding on, not wanting his father to leave him and the fun to end.
While some readers may choose to pick just one side of the ambiguous poem, innocent waltzing or complete fearful violence, Roethke picked and chose specific words for the poem that do not coincide with just one side, but with elements of both sides of the interpretation. However, Roethke leaves the interpretation of the poem up to the reader letting each individual make their own judgement “depending on what personal experience they filter it through” (McKenna).
Blessing, Richard. “Theodore Roethke: A Celebration.” Tulane Studies in English, 1972. Academic Search Premiere, http://web.a.ebscohost.com.libserv-prd.bridgew.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=3&sid=d19ccf3f-2b89-476f-a293-8252d4d57fcb%40sessionmgr4009&hid=4212&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=mzh&AN=1972110306.
Fong, Bobby. “Roethke’s ‘My Papa’s Waltz.’” College Literature, vol. 17, no. 1, February 1990. Academic Search Premiere, http://web.a.ebscohost.com.libserv-prd.bridgew.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=2&sid=64d13056-84ca-4600-ab77-7a65369ebaed%40sessionmgr4008&hid=4212&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=9609111563&db=aph.
McKenna, John J. “Roethke’s Revisions and the Tone of ‘My Papa’s Waltz.’” University of Nebraska at Omaha, vol. 11, no. 2, 1998, pp. 34-38. Academic Search Premiere, http://web.a.ebscohost.com.libserv-prd.bridgew.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=4d5de8e1-552d-419a-a8df-befdaf5b121f%40sessionmgr4006&hid=4212.
McRoberts, Patrick. “Roethke, Theodore (1908-1963).” HistoryLink.org, http://www.historylink.org/File/5410. Roethke, Theodore. “My Papa’s Waltz.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. New York,: W.W. Norton, n.d. p. 2274. Print.