Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” speaks of how a daughter is able to see past the defects of her father with such adoring calm and respect. The poem is playful and innocent, the choice of words child-like, and the rhyme measured at a pace of a child’s anxious breathing. Yet a sense of caution rings true throughout, right from the very first lines down to the end of the poem. There is the unmistakable obedient but anxious anticipation in the part of the child upon seeing his father coming home drunk again.
Also, perhaps because of the regularity of her “waltz” with her father the speaker has committed the details to memory. Waltz as a metaphor for action in the poetry tallies with the words romp—a boisterous frolic; dizzy, slid, step, scraped, beat, time and cling to the shirt among others (Roethke). Literally, waltz is dancing to fast music. The steps are not measured, oftentimes wild but still remains rhythmic and moves to a tune.
It is danced with both partners holding to each other for dear life—so to speak, lest one should be thrown off from the repetitive twirls. As it were, at first reading, the poem may admit of several interpretations, yet by giving color to every word that sense which will result from all of the parts taken together, along with death, battered, hard, dirt, whiskey and so on, there is enough that can be gathered to support the conclusion that the “waltz” as used in the poem, means the abuse of a daughter by a drunk father (Roethke).
However, although the work may be largely read as a re-telling of an incident where a father beats his daughter, the way that Roethke plays with the words and imagery makes the work open to several readings: Ones that may not necessarily lean towards violence and abuse. It is easy to read the work with a different view altogether. Nevertheless, the freedom of interpretation is granted solely to the reader due to the multiple meanings that the words and imagery, used in the poetry, convey.
At any rate, the use of waltz to describe the beating was a clever touch in that it subtly shows the young girl’s abject fear to a point where harsh and hostile words, from an otherwise meek and mild tone, would only lessen the claim that the beating is regular and harsh. The message is clear that because of the frequency and extent of violence, the young girl is rendered unable to speak ill of the father in this poem but instead is beaten to absolute dread and horror to which only forced obedience is her only weapon.
Thus, it would seem that they have danced the “waltz” before and nothing that eventually happens in the poem is something new or is happening for the first time. The speaker’s recollection of the details is remarkable underscoring the fact that what happened is still fresh in her memory or so etched in her mind so deeply that missing out a fact is impossible. There is the possibility of repetition felt at the end since the speaker makes it a point to show that this shall not be the last time—whilst she clung (desperately) to her dad’s shirt.
She knows that it she will have to “waltz” with her papa soon enough that she prostrates herself at the end of that violent episode, hoping against all hope that there shall no longer be any in the future (Roethske). In the same vein, the poem is addressed to the father, waxing poetry with a meek letter of demand for the beating to stop. The over-all tone and style is apologetic and wishful in manner and in part. It is a technique used to show the attempt of the girl to appeal to the father’s emotions without so much as being violent in the treatment if only not to anger her father in the process.
Moreover, the use of the word “waltz” as an ironic imagery reveals the mental age of the speaker. Consequently, these are hints of the young girl’s age since her tenderness and impressionability as a child coincides with the average year that a girl normally dreams of becoming a princess who waltzes with her prince. Instead, in this instance, it is the young girl and her father—who reeks with alcohol; with the crammed kitchen space as their dance floor, the cluttering of falling pans as the resounding applause; and a helpless mother, whose “countenance could not unfrown itself” (Roethke), looking on.