Chaos And Violence In Theodore Roethke’s Poem My Dad’s Waltz

May 18, 2022 by Essay Writer

Margaret J. Wheatley, once said, “Everyone in a complex system has a slightly different interpretation. The more interpretations we gather, the easier it becomes to gain a sense of the whole.” Reading this makes me think of all the different things we can find different in each other’s lives. In the poem “My Papa’s Waltz,” by Theodore Roethke, the tone is written to subtly convey the speaker’s resentment toward his father.

The first comparison we come to likens of the tone is the speaker’s resentment to let go of who his father was in the first stanza. The speaker paints a picture of an alcoholic father who, because he doesn’t care, is beating his son half to death. He is surrounded by his wife who can’t help but to not unfrown at the situation at hand, her husband beating their child. The speaker says that the whiskey on the father’s breath would make someone feel dizzy. Despite this, the boy didn’t want to let go of his father. He said, “But I hung on like death” which implies that the boy did not want to part away from his father. He explains that the “waltzing” was not easy, but still hung on like his life depended on it. He does not want his emotions to show or else his father may do something.

The second stanza deals with the issue of not being content with life. The speaker says, “We romped until the pans / slid from the kitchen shelf” (5-6). This “romping” can be identified as to play or run in a lively manner. But, romping around could also mean taking a second to soak in all the glimpses of pain people are surrounded by in everyday life. The next two lines go on to say, “My mother’s countenance / Could not unfrown itself”. Reading this shows a glimpse of the mother’s pain as she watches her alcoholic husband beat her child. She is scared for her son’s safety. She couldn’t help but fret because of the abuse she had endured such as being abused by her husband, depressed, and frightened for her and her son’s safety conditions. The mother’s frown represents the downfall of the abuse.

In the third stanza it deals with the realization of the father’s abuse. The first two lines of this stanza states, “The hand that held my wrist / Was battered on one knuckle”. The father is hanging on so tight to his son’s wrist because he does not want to let him go. In my opinion, when it says “‘the’ hand,” I believe that that is the hand that the father uses to hit and abuse his child with. The father’s knuckle was “battered”. According to, in this stanza, battered means to be damaged by beating something. Also, we can tell that the boy loves his father, but also resents him. He pays attention to every little detail about his father and how his attitude affects the household. The father and son have what it seems to be a fun, joyful relationship, but in reality, when digging deeper into the poem, realize that its violent: “At every step you missed / My right ear scraped a buckle”. According to, everything that the father does when the “waltz” is unaware to him such as scraping his son’s ear. However, another could interpret that the father did notice, but was not going to show any emotion. He wanted to be seen as a tough human being who could endure anything. Ironically, the belt buckle can relate to how in society today fathers and even grandfathers use their belts to discipline their children for what they have done wrong. They do this to teach them a lesson. Reading the line “My right ear scraped a buckle,” one can take in mind that the little boy is short, but he is only tall enough to reach his father’s waistline.

In the fourth stanza, the poet uses images to help the reader concentrate on what is happening. The speaker does this to paint a picture of a broken family that slowly starts to begin a path to healing. By mentioning the word “time”, the speaker suggests that “beating” time means that the father is finally realizing that physically abusing his child has to come to a stop. He has to get better at controlling his emotions. Soon, life will be over, and he comes to terms that he wouldn’t be able to change the ways he acted and tormented his son. He realized his son had no childhood due to him always abusing him and not letting him outside the house to hang out with friends. The line, “You beat time on my head,” also means that the father was beating his son to make him more mature and to be able to stand head strong. Then the speaker ends saying, “Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging on your shirt”. The first part of this states that the father is finally done physically abusing his son. However, the last line says, “But I hung on like death,” these lines can both mean that even if the son don’t like what his father did to him his whole childhood, he is still going to be there beside him because he loves and cares for him.

The main themes of the poem that gives off the tone are chaos and violence. The chaos is caused by the father beating his son while romping around knocking pans off of the kitchen shelves the theme of violence came in to play when the poet said, “Such waltzing was not easy” meaning that it was hard to overlook what was going on. Nothing was going to end well, so the boy kept being affected by the power hi alcoholic father had over him.

Roethke’s use of tone in the poem, “My Papa’s Waltz,” is used to subtly convey how the speaker felt dissatisfied with his father’s behavior. But, in the need the father realizes to turn his life around the next day and become a better father figure. Fang bobby wrote, “’My Papa’s Waltz’ was used to regress into areas of the psyche where the powerful thoughts and feelings of the child-the raw materials and driving power of our later lives-remain under the layers of rationale and of civilized purpose.” Reading this reminded me that even through the tough times God has aa purpose for it; not to hurt us, but to help u


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