An analysis of Theodore Roethke's My Papa's Waltz

kerrymichaelwood By kerrymichaelwood, 10th Nov 2010 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Poetry

A close analysis of a poem written in the 1940s. Special consideration of language which in recent years causes knee-jerk, negative reactions.

My Papa's Waltz by Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke, author of My Papa's Waltz, would be pleasantly surprised to know that his poem has become a generational litmus test - an almost sure-fire means of determining the age of the poem's readers. To Gen X'ers and their children, the poem is a disturbing treatment of alcoholism and child abuse. This is a result of the media's shaping certain responses to language. To Baby Boomers and the earlier Silent Generation, it carries hints and suggestions of pain, but most often it is viewed as a pleasant description of a father cavorting with his small son. Papa's had more whiskey than is good for him, but this is not a diatribe against alcohol.

Fittingly, Theodore Roethke's poem is written in iambic trimeter, poetry's closest approximation to music's three-quarter or waltz time. However, the dance the speaker describes is not the graceful and joyous exercise we ordinarily associate with waltzing. The title emphasizes that this is the waltz of the father; the son is an obedient, dutiful participant less than overjoyed by what he is doing.

The father is somewhat in his cups, and his exhalations, combined with the dance movements, make the boy dizzy. It is no accident that "breath" is rhymed with "death." The slant rhyme of "dizzy" and "easy" contribute to the notion of clumsiness.

The second stanza focuses on the disapproving mother. Her frown is caused by her husband's tipsiness and his insistence on their son's being a partner in the graceless romp that causes pans to tumble from the kitchen shelf.

In stanza three we learn that the father has an injured knuckle and that the boy's ear scrapes on his parent's belt buckle when Papa misses steps. The knuckle injury goes along with the "palm caked hard with dirt." Roethke's German-born father operated a nursery in Saginaw, Michigan. Boyhood memories of the greenhouse abound in Roethke's work. Thirteen flower poems comprise the opening section of The Lost Son. In The Geranium the poet mentions his own fondness for liquor and speaks of a potted plant as if it were a female companion.

. . . the two of us, alone, both seedy,
Me breathing booze at her,
She leaning out of her pot toward the window.

The reviewer is a man in his 70s. My Papa's Waltz is a boy's description of what he willingly endures from a loved parent. Roethke was emotionally shattered by his father's death by heart attack when the poet was fifteen. In the poem I see a hard-working man who enjoys a few belts of whiskey at the end of the day. He indulges in a rollicking dance with his son. I remember doing something similar with my father when I was young enough to be ear-level with his belt buckle.

I feel the young narrator's discomfort, but I interpret neither the "battered" knuckle nor "beating" time on the boy's head as indications of child abuse. Here are examples of the media influencing responses to language. How often in the past thirty or forty years have we heard reports of "battered children" and "battered wives," "child abuse"? Knuckles do suffer if one labors with tools in a greenhouse. One need not physically abuse one's children to get a skinned knuckle.

The same phenomenon has occurred with the words "beater" and "beats." People aged 50 and below hear a different meaning than do their elders. When speaking of music, one "beats time." No other verb works. The belt buckle scraping the son's ear means not that the father whips the boy. It merely objectifies the height difference of father and son.

Thus these four simple quatrains say opposite things to readers of different age groups. Terms like child-abuse and "battered" family members fall easily from the tongue today since we hear them so often. Such was not the case when the poem was being written. The mother who only frowns and does not attempt to halt the dance or protest her husband's alcohol consumption would today be spoken of as "codependent" or an "enabler." In 1948 when the poem was written, those sociological terms did not exist.

America in 1948 was a Norman Rockwell nation. Kitchens were the centers of family life. Mothers most often were not members of the work force. Working-class fathers downed whiskey, not wine, to relax from the day's labor. "Dysfunctional" was not yet a term to describe families or relationships. A son wouldn't be glued to computer games or TV but would be available for a gambol about the kitchen with his father.

Things change.

Not until the mid 1960s did the wine industry begin to burgeon. Prior to that time, few could define the word sommelier. Italian Swiss Colony was available to those unable to afford scotch, bourbon, gin or vodka. These days I know only a few people who drink any alcohol other than wine or beer at cocktail parties and open houses. Are we as a society becoming more sober and sensible?

If so, why is it that no one dares hitchhike anymore? Why do mothers who in their youth walked or rode their bikes to grade school and high school feel it necessary to accompany their children to the bus stop or drive them to school? When did terms like "teacher abuse," "sexual offender," and "kiddie porn" become catchwords? Has our society become more dangerous?

The conflicting interpretations of this relatively straightforward poem speak volumes about changes in America. I sense an amused smile from the inhabitant of Theodore Roethke's coffin.


Affection, Battered, Codependency, Generation X, Knee-Jerk Reactions, Knuckle, Litmus Test, My Papas Waltz, Roethke, Whiskey, Wife

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author avatar kerrymichaelwood

I am a graduate of Yale University with a Master's degree in English.
I can be reached at Additional info at

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author avatar Rathnashikamani
3rd Sep 2011 (#)

Hi kerrymichaelwood,

I enjoyed this analysis thoroughly.

I've learnt how a poem should be analysed.

You've brought out the subtlety of the poet's technique into simple prose.

"It merely objectifies the height difference of father and son."

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author avatar kerrymichaelwood
3rd Sep 2011 (#)


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author avatar Caleb
3rd Oct 2011 (#)

Hello, I chose this poem to be one of the two I will recite in English II for Poetry Out Loud ( For a more precise understanding of the poem I stumbled upon this analysis. Could you please inform me a little more as to what the line "Beat time on my head" meant? I understand beating time, but what relevance was the child's head in this? Was the father simply patting him on the head as a form of affection? Also, I did not notice any sources on this. If you had any sources I'd love to see them. Thanks in advance.

-I was thinking I should recite it with a positive, reminiscent tone. Are there any times where I should change this tone?

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author avatar Rdf
10th Dec 2013 (#)


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author avatar Hui
10th Dec 2013 (#)

ya fuck thta shat

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author avatar Hui
10th Dec 2013 (#)


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author avatar kerrymichaelwood
23rd Dec 2013 (#)

That's really clever, Rdf and Hui.
Oh Hui. Your name in Russian is very fitting.

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author avatar Ben
4th Jan 2014 (#)

This morning I was thinking about my encounter with this poem in college. Everyone in that English class was Generation X, maybe even the instructor (it was the late 90's at Ohio State). The poem was read aloud, and I loved the ambiguity - yes, there was whiskey and battered knuckles, the child's head is being scraped and "beaten," but these "violent" words and phrases just add a sense of intensity and mild recklessness that is not incompatible with a happy tipsy father playing with his son. When it came time to discuss the poem, I was the only one who seemed to think that their actually may have been some dancing going on. Everyone else thought it was obvious that it was a beating. It felt awkward to think otherwise, as if I were minimizing or glossing over child abuse. At the end of class the instructor revealed the "correct" answer, which is that it was a violent beating. Since then I have thought of that class, and the ostracism I felt because I wasn't being reductive, as one of the reasons I dropped out of college. This morning I feel vindicated, especially by your essay.

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author avatar Jangmu sherpa
25th Jul 2014 (#)

I am going to write term paper on the subject of Poetry and literature of M.A.1st semester. feeling difficult.....

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