Parenting is intended to guide children toward an independent adulthood. Morals and lessons are developed through discipline, imitation, and learned respect for oneself and society. Some parents show love and affection whereas others shape their children with respect and stern discipline. In the poems “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden and “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke, a relationship between a father and son are portrayed as both authors reflect on their own childhood experiences. While the two poems have similarities; in that, the fathers work hard and believe in stern punishment, they also have several contrasting ideas in parenting that separate their respective roles as fathers.
In both poems, the fathers have worked hard to provide for their family. In “My Papa’s Waltz”, the father’s daily labors were described with defined imagery: “With a palm caked Hard by dirt,” (14). Hayden describes his father’s hands of labor as, “[…] cracked hands that ached / from labor in the weekday […]” (3-4). In both occasions, the fathers have a physically demanding work that shapes their demeanor.
The sons on both occasions were reared in a time when strict parenting and stern punishment were accepted. Roethke recalls, “The hand that held my wrist / Was battered on one knuckle;” (9-10). This indicates that his father had great hold on his son’s actions and that if severe punishment is needed it may involve physical repercussions. In “Those Winter Sundays”, the forceful nature of rearing the son is also shown. Hayden describes the anguish by, “fearing the chronic angers of that house,” (9). His father, as well, may have been demanding and have strict rules which children were thought to abide by.
While the fathers seem to have hard mannerisms, their level of interactions with their sons varies significantly. This represents their different approaches to fatherhood. In “Those Winter Sundays”, the father does small deeds that show his love for his family. As the boy recalls, “I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. / […] the rooms were warm […]” (6-7). Hayden also realizes he, “who had driven out the cold / and polished my good shoes as well.” (11-12), was another act of kindness and responsibility of a parent. In “My Papa’s Waltz”, the father figure actively involves in the live of his son, though the father’s drunken stupor is not a very responsible engagement to provide a young child. Roethke describes the event:
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
Such waltzing was not easy. (1-2, 4)
Though the father is dancing with the son and possibly showing his affection for his child, he is not acting as a respectful and moralistic father figure. His antics even become out-of-hand as “We romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf;” (5-6).
The degree by which the sons perceive their fathers differs greatly. In “My Papa’s Waltz”, the son is compassionate toward the drunken father. As the boy recalls, “Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt.” (15-16). He knows that nothing is perfect but he still looks up to his father and he embraces what love he can. In “Those Winter Sundays”, the son is very apathetic toward his father. The son notes the less than appreciative nature that the family shows for their dependable father: “No one ever thanked him.” (5) The son says he found himself, “Speaking indifferently to [his father],” (10). The son did not appreciate or take notice to the acts of kindness and subtle projections of affection that his father presented him.
The poems present us with two fathers who work hard in their daily life and believe in harsh punishment in rearing children. While these are similarities that shape their roles as fathers, they differ in their responsibility toward parenting and in the receptiveness in relation to their sons. It seems that a responsible parent, though tough and expectant, would be well received and a role model for their young son, but in “Those Winter Sundays” the young son is indifferent to the providing parent. Even when a father does his best to discipline and create a learning environment for a child to become independent it may not be well acknowledged; and this too is representative of unexpected nature of parenting. In “My Papa’s Waltz”, the drunken father does not show a perfect character yet the son is sympathetic and understanding of his downfalls. Not all fathers can assume a role that shows love, respect, kindness, and discipline intermingling in perfect rhythm. It is hoped that even with weaknesses seen in parents, children will grow and become highly regarded members of society–as these noted poets have become.
Hayden, Robert. “Those Winter Sundays.” Bridges: Literature Across
Cultures. Eds. Gilbert H. Muller and John A. Williams. New York:
Mc-Graw-Hill, 1994. 51.
Roethke, Theodore. “My Papa’s Waltz.” Bridges: Literature Across Cultures.
Eds. Gilbert H. Muller and John A. Williams. New York: Mc-Graw Hill,
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