“The Gift” and “My Papa’s Waltz”: Values Are Caught, Not Taught
Both the speakers in “The Gift” by Li-Young Lee and “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke look up to their fathers with wide-eyed admiration. In comparing the two poems, what stands out the most is the similar theme; that is, each boy has received a gift from his father. In both poems the father is very influential to his son, as the speaker is a young boy who learns a from his father’s actions rather than his father’s words. Both speakers share a similar relationship to the father, which can be understood through the speakers’ tones, figurative language, and memorable images.
In terms of narrative voice, the speakers in “The Gift” and “ My Papa’s Waltz” are very similar. The diction in both poems makes it clear that the speaker is now an adult who is looking back on a childhood memory. The speaker in “The Gift” is remembering a time when his father pulled a splinter from his hand. The speaker says “I was seven when my father/took my hand like this” (24-25). While the memory shared is an experience of the speaker when he was seven, he is telling the story as an adult. The speaker has carried the memory with him from a child and now he is older and married. This sense of remembrance is clear when speaker says, “I bend over my wife’s right hand” (20). Similarly, the speaker in “My Papa’s Waltz” is remembering a time when he was playing with his father. The speaker recalls, “At every step you missed/ My right ear scraped a buckle” (11-12). The imagery here reveals that the boy is only as tall as his fathers buckle. Like “The Gift”, the diction of the poem confirms the boy is now an adult. For example, the speaker recalls that “Such waltzing was not easy” (4). In recollecting as an adult, the speaker is able to describe playing with his father as waltzing. What makes both poems unique is the way both speakers relate their experiences through the innocent eyes of a child. This childlike view further helps illuminate the way the boys felt about their fathers and the father-son relationships they shared.
In both poems, the boys see their fathers in an earnest and innocent way, and each poem sets a tone revealing how each boy felt admiration and unconditional love for his father. In “The Gift,” the speaker uses a heartfelt metaphor to describe his father’s voice: “[I] hear his voice still, a well/ of dark water, a prayer” (7-8). In relating his father’s voice to a well of dark water the speaker is referencing the memory of his fathers voice as something deep that he will never forget. His father’s voice as a prayer signifies that it is something very sacred to the boy even now that he is a man. The boy feels very proud to be a man just like his dad who he admires as he describes taking the splinter from his wife’s hand, “Look how I shave her thumbnail down/ so carefully she feels no pain” (21-22). Similarly in, “My Papa’s Waltz the boy unconditionally loves his father, so much so that he does not want to stop playing and go to bed; “waltzed me off to bed/ Still clinging to your shirt” (14-15) The speaker admires his father who has “whiskey on [his] breath” (1), a “palm caked hard by dirt” (13), and a hand “battered on one knuckle” (9). The description of his father makes it clear that he is a rough, masculine, hard working man. The speaker’s diction, such as “I hung on like death” (3), has a rough feel and emulates these qualities in his father, reiterating the admiration he has towards him. The imagery makes it seem like the boy is standing on his father’s feet as they waltz, and boy feels proud and accomplished that he was tough enough (just like his dad) and was able to hang on. The overall tone of both poems show that each boy has a deep admiration for his father; in a sense, both of the boys are proud to emulate their fathers. While each father has a very unique personality, the boys in the poems unconditionally love them and look up to them for who they are.
Furthermore, both poems use figurative language and similar images to display a common theme. In both poems there is a theme of values being passes down from father to son. As exemplified in the previous paragraph, as men, each of the boys admires his father and takes on his traits. In both poems this admiration is displayed through the speakers description of his father’s hands. In “The Gift,” the speaker reminisces, “And I recall his hands,/ two measures of tenderness/ he laid against my face (9-11). The speaker uses a metaphor to figuratively describe the gentleness of his father’s hands which is also the trait that the speaker learns from his father and ends up being so proud of himself. Additionally, the speaker describes his father’s hands as, “flames of discipline” (12) and it is clear the speaker has not only learned patience and gentleness but has also learned the value of discipline from this father. Similarly, the speaker in “My Papa’s Waltz” has also learned the value of discipline from his father. The speaker recalls, “You beat time on my head/ With a palm caked hard by dirt (13-14). The speaker is using the images of his father’s hand to figuratively describe his father has a hard worker. Here, the speaker is also figuratively expressing the attention to time which his father instilled in him (an essential discipline for any hard worker). The speaker also describes his father’s hand as “battered on one knuckle,” and says, “At every step you missed/ My right ear scraped a buckle” (10-12). The description of the speaker’s father’s hand here shows that his father is tough and rough around the edges. The boy is proud that he is tough just like his dad, as he has a scraped ear. The end rhyme of “knuckle” and “buckle” further suggests a connection between the father’s battered knuckle and the speakers scraped ear. Both boys have learned by behavior values from their fathers. The fathers’ hands in both poems are symbolic to the kind of personas they displayed to their sons. Like his dad, the speaker in “The Gift” has grown to be very gentle, and the man in “My Papa’s Waltz” is timely and tough.
Each poem is a firm indication of how children look up to their parents with innocence and admiration. In “My Papa’s Waltz” the title alone reflects the innocent way a boy sees his father, as a drunken stagger has been interpreted as a waltz. The title “The Gift” is very symbolic of the skills the boy received from his father, whom he looked up to. Both of the boys are very impressionable, and learn not from their fathers words, but from their father’s actions. They both looked up to their fathers as children with at times unconditional love, and as adults they cherish the skills or at least memories that their fathers have given them.
Lee, Li-Young. “The Gift”. The Seagull Reader: Poems. 2cd Ed. New York: Norton & Company, Inc, 2008, 2001. 208. Print.
Roethke, Theodore. “My Papa’s Waltz”. The Seagull Reader: Poems. 2cd Ed. New York: Norton & Company, Inc, 2008, 2001. 208. Print.
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