“My Papa’s Waltz,” written in 1948 by Theodore Roethke, is probably easily misinterpreted. Undoubtedly, the initial ambiguity of the speaker’s relation is part of a deliberate strategy on the part of Roethke to accomplish a more specific and intimate evocation of emotion from the reader. I would argue that this poem features three distinct levels of meaning, each entirely essential to the final effect. The surface level of interpretation is centered around the light imagery of “waltzing” (Roethke, line 4). On a second level, the reader is likely inclined to associate the waltz with images of child abuse. Finally, a third level emerges, reconciling the images of darkness with those of a playful dance between father and son. This final interpretation is qualitatively altered after the poem has already been considered on the first two levels.
Upon first reading, a completely literal understanding of the poem is possible. The reader is aware that the speaker is (or was) a small boy, performing a difficult dance with his father. The details are irrelevant, and no metaphorical consideration is taken. Even from this severely limited perspective, the reader notes the distinct effect of the speaker’s use of “you” from the first person retrospective point of view.
The second level of interpretation is that on which the reader begins to catch the numerous words and phrases that carry darker connotations. Nearly every line of the poem contains at least one example of potentially dark diction; for example, “But I hung on like death,” (Roethke, line 3) “scraped,” (Roethke, line 12) and “You beat time on my head” (Roethke, line 13) handily conjure up images of violence. The comparison to death seems out of place, and the reader begins to wonder why whiskey is involved (Roethke, line 1). All in all, it seems as though the child’s mother is standing by as her husband is beating their child in a drunken yet elaborate manner. The allusion to Papa’s “battered…knuckle” (Roethke, line 10) might even suggest that he had been fighting before. Considered on this level, the poem’s meter (iambic trimeter) contributes to a sort of singsong, storybook rhyme that has been creepily perverted by physical violence and emotional abuse.
It is the third level of interpretation, though, that reveals the poem’s true meaning. After considering the prospect of child abuse, the reader is likely to wonder why the child is so inclined to “[hang] on like death,” (Roethke, line 3) and “[cling] to your shirt” (Roethke, line 16). Although it is possible that the child loves his father despite the violence he inflicts, there are several important factors to consider. The “whiskey on your breath” (Roethke, line 1) is not necessarily mystifying; indeed, it is understandable that a working-class man during that era would have a drink at night. Also, although the word “romped” (Roethke, line 5) could be taken to mean “fought,” it is entirely possible that it is intended to convey its literal meaning, which the OED defines as “To play, sport, or frolic in a very lively, merry, or boisterous manner” (“romp”). Indeed, as the reader considers this meaning, it begins to stand in very nicely for the meaning of the poem as a whole. The boy is “dizzy” (Roethke, line 2) because he and his father are roughhousing, and his “mother’s countenance / Could not unfrown itself” (Roethke, lines 7-8) because she is understandably disapproving of their destructive cavorting. Papa’s hand is “battered on one knuckle” (Roethke, line 10) because he is a working class man – hence his “palm caked hard by dirt” (Roethke, line 14). “My right ear scraped a buckle” (Roethke, line 12) refers to Papa’s belt buckle as he is wearing it instead of the harsher connotation of punishment. All of these interpretations result from an essential “back-and-forth switch” in the reader’s mind.
In the end, it is clear that this poem is a son’s loving homage to his father. It is unclear whether or not the speaker is actually Roethke, but since his father died when the poet was a teenager, it is a distinct possibility that the poem is at least inspired by events from his own childhood (Lehman 529). The child’s reluctance to let his father go – and especially the direct comparison to death’s inevitability in line 3 – may be a reference to this. Whatever the case, a sense of childhood innocence and of melancholy reflection on better days seems to be achieved by the end of the reader’s quest to find meaning in the poem.
Lehman, David. The Oxford Book of American Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2006. Print.
Roethke, Theodore. “My Papa’s Waltz.” The Oxford Book of American Poetry. Ed. David Lehman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2006. 530. Print.
“romp, v.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 12 Sep 2007 . Web.