“My Papa’s Waltz” is a domestic ballad illustrating a jovial waltz around the kitchen – a snapshot- fueled by nostalgia, reflection, and love, allowing the reader to contemplate their childhood and family. Roethke’s expert use of rhythm, rhyme and language enraptures the reader, creating an emotive piece which universally resonates with the audience. Conversely, when this simplicity is abandoned, chaos and vulnerability prevail. Sinister themes emerge and a sense of fear towards the father is uncovered. The true meaning is elusive. This is the case for all poetry- its most beautiful asset is its subjectiveness, its ability to divide and connect people, and the weight that personal experience, history, and attitude play in any given interpretation.
Williams describes the ballad form as “robustly orientated towards gathering of people, mostly united by circumstance” (Williams 2019: 35). The spirit of this poem unites people with a topic that is inevitably relatable: family. Roethke depicts a familiar scene of drunken dancing with a parent, comical disapproval from a mother, and looseness that is indicative of alcohol. Furthermore, the emotional scene between father and son- the tenderness exhibited by the lulling assonance and the gesture of putting one’s child to bed is touching and can be felt far and wide.
Moreover, “a palm caked hard in dirt” reveals the extreme exhaustion of the father and elucidates his drinking, crafting a moving point about the plight of the working class. The child is absorbed in this dancing, not yet understand the hardship of the world. The trochee (“Slid”) continues to emphasize chaos- which escapes the child’s notice- and characterizes the harsh clattering of pots and pans. The mother’s expression being unable to “unfrown itself” is threefold: illustrating the hardship of poverty; the intrinsic instinct to shelter a child; and the submissive role of the woman.
Gender roles lay at the crux of this. The mother remains a silent figure who is not considered. Indeed, the father is never addressed, yielding a sense of reverence and submission to the obvious ‘breadwinner’. Interestingly, on reflection the speaker observes with the mother; although in the moment the child was captivated by the father now empathy emerges for the mother.
As such, this poem has a profound sense of reflection and introspection. “My Papa’s Waltz” is part of the Greenhouse collection which Roethke himself expresses as his “symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven on earth”. Hence, it is unfathomable to suggest that, when the poet holds his upbringing and father in an ethereal light, Roethke intended this to be a powerhouse of domestic turmoil and alcohol abuse. It is simply the representation of the trials and tribulation of life, the complex nature of family and memories, and the fine line between resentment and admiration. In essence this waltz is a depiction of tugging emotions, pushing and pulling between father and son, challenging the conformed belief that love is the antithesis of hate.
However, “The Poem is like a seesaw”. The emotional domestic scene (“Then waltzed me off to bed/Still clinging to your shirt”); the jovial dance and joking disapproval of the mother; the love and admiration for the father, can be undercut by personal experience and subjective interpretation. There is undeniable unease in this poem, domestic bliss is couched in fear and trepidation, the “waltz” is interwoven with tension and double entendre. From the half-rhymes, the jumbling end-stops and enjambement, the sporadic spondee, it is a lattice of ambiguity and darkness: was the “waltz” an extended metaphor for incestuous rape or abuse?
This bleak reading is heightened by the use of language: “Such waltzing was not easy”. The nature of this dance is simplistic and so why is the iambic trimeter-which mimics the pattern of the waltz- so disrupted? This could be cast aside as a light-hearted mocking of the father’s inebriated state, but when delving deeper it unveils tension between father and son- a battle of wills- an attempt to overpower, escape and compete with one another.
The catalytic foot put forth by the half-rhymes (“dizzy”, “easy”) left this modified ballad unbalanced (disrupting the ABAB of the four quatrains) from the foundation. This further emphasizes the metaphorical dance that the father and son are entangled in- they are on edge and wary- as the lines between love and aggression are blurred. The repetition of the “s” sound in the second quatrain portrays the slurring of words and the unstoppable force of the father. Nevertheless, it is evident that the son still craves this, although in retrospect he understands the “mother’s countenance”, he would never forfeit this memory. Thus, exhibiting an agonizing longing for a paternal figure. Additionally, the cyclical form- due to the beginning and end of the waltz- highlights the finite nature of life and happiness, whilst creating conflict between a fleeting memory and the permanent impact it has on the persona. Just as the boy was “clinging” to the father’s shirt, so too is his adult self clinging to this naive portrayal of his father’s actions.
The spondee aforementioned “Beat time on”, once interpreted as the beat of the dance or the transient state ever playing in the mind of the persona, can now portray violence. It is both figuratively, and literally, a punch-yet another contrast between the powerful and the vulnerable. This idea is fostered through the unnatural pause after the simile “hung on like death”, leaving the sing-song rhythm feeling insidious, creating dangerous vibrations, as the reader is forced to ruminate on its implication and is jarringly pulled out of the harmony.
Therefore, Roethke intended this to be a poem of family love and self- reflection, but over time it has become multifaceted. “My Papa’s Waltz” is an entrancing combination of contrast, tackling a broad spectrum of issues: gender roles, relationships, love, abuse, and the ephemeral nature of time. Every technique, every rhyme, every word could be interpreted differently. The poet puts words on paper; the reader brings a poem to life.