The bond between a parent and a child is not only one of the strongest, but, it also has the ability to be the most complicated. This intricate bond is exhibited in both “Medusa”, written by Sylvia Plath, as well as Theodore Roethke’s poem, “My Papa’s Waltz.” These two poems are written in first person point view about a child’s feelings towards a far from perfect parent. While both of these poems are about a child’s view on the complex relationship they share with their parent, the form, tone, intent, and symbols in which they are written could not be more contrasting.
Two of many contrasting elements between these poems are the form in which they are structured, and the symbols used in the poems. “My Papa’s Waltz” is written in iambic trimeter and is made up of four stanzas; with each stanza consisting of four lines. The rhyme scheme this poem follows is ABAB which gives the poem a very melodic feeling. The musicality imbedded in the form of this poem is fitting seeing as the poem is written about a father and son waltzing together. On the contrary, Plath wrote “Medusa” as a free verse with no rhyme or consistent meter. This structure contributes to the anger Plath was surely feeling while writing it and the fact that she did not have any desire for the poem to flow or sound appealing. Though the form in these poems are on opposite sides of the spectrum, they both contribute to the overall tone and effect of the poem. The symbols used by Roethke and Plath in their poems also differ greatly. The waltz Roethke describes in “My Papa’s Waltz” is not only a literal dance but is also an extended metaphor for the speaker’s unsteady relationship with his father. At times, the waltz as well as their relationship was so enjoyable that, when the time came for it to end, the speaker was “still clinging to [his father’s] shirt” (line 16). However, at other times, “such waltzing was not easy” (line 4) and the child even got physically injured due to “missed” (line 11) steps. In contrast, Plath uses the Greek mythology Medusa to symbolize her mother as a person. She describes her mother as a creature who “hiss[es]” (line 39) and contains “eely tentacles” (line 40) and by comparing her mother to Medusa, Plath is insinuating that her mother is no longer a human in her eyes, but rather a monster. Again, Plath dehumanizes her mother in order to put distance between them and, in the end, Plath writes: “There is nothing between us” (line 41).
Another great dissimilarity between “My Papa’s Waltz” and “Medusa” is that they bear two completely different tones. In his poem, “My Papa’s Waltz”, Roethke’s tone—specifically directed at his father—is eager and devoted. Although his father is staggeringly drunk during the waltz, Roethke still “hung on like death” (line 3) because he would rather risk getting his “right ear scraped” (line 12) than let go of sharing this moment with his father. Roethke’s tone suggests that, despite his father’s faults, he will continue to remain an attached and devoted son. Roethke also integrates a somewhat playful tone into his poem. He will clearly waltz and “romp until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf” (lines 8-9) with his father under any circumstance and be happy to do so. Contrarily, in her vehement poem, “Medusa”, Plath’s tone is incredibly harsh, detached, and dark. Throughout this poem, Plath uses this harsh and detached tone to reiterate her wish to sever the link between her and her mother. She writes as if the umbilical cord that attached her to her mother before birth is still intact, “in a state of miraculous repair” (line 15), and for all intents and purposes unable to be severed. This seems to anger Plath and by the end of her poem, she uses her dark and detached tone to strip her mother of any and all human characteristics. All that is left is a “ghastly” (line 36) and inhuman creature whose only ability to communicate is to “hiss at [her] sins” (line 39). Plath’s tone in this poem shows that if she cannot fully cut the ties that bind her to her mother, she will find other—perhaps darker—ways to detach herself. Through their contrasting tones, both Roethke and Plath were able to convey their true feelings towards their parents, their parent’s faults, and how they were affected by them.
Although the subject of these two poems are the particulars of a difficult child-parent relationship, the feelings and intent behind each poem are completely different. On one hand, there is “My Papa’s Waltz” which, on its surface, describes a lighthearted, late-night dance in the kitchen between a father and son. However, the deeper meaning of the poem suggests that the speaker, Roethke, has conflicted feelings towards his father. For example, Roethke suggests that his father has an issue with alcohol because he drinks enough to where his breath “could make a small boy dizzy” (line 2) and it is clear that this unsettles him. He also eludes to his father’s capability of violence when he describes his how father’s “hand that held [his] wrist / Was battered on one knuckle” (lines 9-10) and how he “beat time on [his] head” (line 10). Although Roethke never explicitly states that his father is violent or an alcoholic, there are several moments in the poem that suggest otherwise. Through all of this, the son still longs to dance with and remain attached to his due to the unconditional love that comes with the bond between a parent and child. Plath, on the other hand, is not so willing to forgive her mother’s indiscretions. In “Medusa”, Plath expresses how her mother was incredibly overbearing and because of this, she developed a feeling of resentment and borderline loathing towards her mother. She depicts her mother as a suffocating figure who is constantly “squeezing the breath from her” (line 28) until she could “draw no breath” (line 29). No matter how hard Plath tries to escape her mother’s overbearing influence, it is “always there, / Tremulous breath at the end of [her] line” (lines 16-17). It is apparent that Plath immensely wants to break free of her mother’s chains in order to truly become her own independent person. Whilst both of these poems are about a complex child-parent relationship and the feelings that come along with it, both writers portray their own personal relationship in completely different ways.
“My Papa’s Waltz” and “Medusa” convey that, though the bond between a parent and a child is very strong, it is also incredibly complicated. In his poem, Roethke displays that, despite his father’s flaws and issues, he will never be able to shake the attachment he has to him. Contrarily, in her poem, Plath expresses her deep desire to sever the ties between her and her mother because of her flaws and issues. All in all, both Roethke and Plath use contrasting form, tone, intent, and symbols in their poem to describe the extraordinarily complex relationship they shared with their imperfect parent.