‘My Papa’s Waltz,’ 1948 In this poem by Theodor Roethke, the speaker is describing his childhood in the arms of his drunken father. He recalls how his father comes home intoxicated with alcohol and drives both him and his mother crazy. Theodor Roethke was a great poet and the moods of his poetry range from acid wit to simple feeling. Some of his other poems are Open House (1941), The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), The Waking (1953, Pulitzer Prize), Words for the Wind (1957), I Am!
Says the Lamb (1961), and The Far Field (1964). ‘Because I could not stop for Death,’ 1863 In this poem by Emily Dickinson, the poet seems to position herself in eternity as she recalls her life. Death is portrayed as a gentleman and Immortality is with them as they ride in a carriage that passes sceneries that depict the three major stages of human life: birth, adolescence and old age. Emily Dickinson is considered one of the most original 19th Century American poets.
She is noted for her unconventional broken rhyming meter and use of dashes and random capitalization as well as her creative use of metaphor and overall innovative style. Some of her poems are Fame is a fickle food, I cannot live with you, I felt a Funeral, in my Brain and I’m Nobody! Who are you? ‘Mother to Son,’ 1932 In this poem by Langston Hughes, a mother is advising his son not to give up on life by recalling her own misgivings in the past. The mother decides to compare her life to stairs and describes how hard it was to climb it.
Langston Hughes was a prolific writer. In the forty years when he first wrote a book until his death in 1967, he wrote sixteen books of poems, two novels, three collections of short stories, four volumes of “editorial” and “documentary” fiction, twenty plays, children’s poetry, musicals and operas, three autobiographies, a dozen radio and television scripts and dozens of magazine articles and edited seven anthologies. Some of his other distinguished poems are The Weary Blues (1926), The Negro Mother and other Dramatic Recitations (1931) and The Dream Keeper (1932).
The profound metaphors in Theodor Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” and Langston Hughes “Mother to Son” make readers reflect on the lives of their poets and contemplate on their own existence. “My Papa’s Waltz” is a joy to analyze because the metaphor or the “waltz” has brought about very contrasting reflections on the poem. With lines such as “But I hung on like death; such waltzing was not easy” (Kennedy and Gioia 674) many critics have come to understand the poem in the light of a father and son playing roughly and enjoying their quality moment.
However, many scholars also think that Roethke is actually using the metaphor of a waltz to describe child abuse. The word “romped” seems to show enjoyment. However, pans sliding from the kitchen shelves and the boy’s ear scraping on his father’s belt buckle with every missed step contradict the poet’s first description of the dance. According to John J. McKenna in his article, Roethke’s Revisions and The Tone Of My Papa’s Waltz, the holograph manuscripts of “My Papa’s Waltz” confirm that Roethke himself tried to balance the negative and positive tones of the poem, resulting in its rich ambiguity.
Emily Dickinson is famous for her great use of metaphors. The first line of the poem “Because i could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me”( Kennedy and Gioia 1019) seems to be about a girl who has contemplated committing suicide in the past. In the end of the poem she seems to be happy that she did not push through with it because she was after all, ready to pursue living. However, the metaphors used to portray death and immortality as persons can be confusing and easily understood in a different light.
William Galperin reflects on these metaphors from the point of view of a feminist. In his critique compiled by Donna Campbell of Washington State University, he believes that “death” embodies society’s perception that a woman has to get married and live a domesticated life while the poem similarly redefined immortality as a woman’s self-possession, or the result of a refusal to allow society the prerogative of selecting her. There are also some scholars who believe that Dickinson is actually hinting on seduction in this poem.
It is very easy to get lost in Dickinson’s metaphors and even scholars themselves have different points of reflections on it. However, these metaphors are what make her poem truly distinct and interesting. In the poem, Mother To Son, Langston Hughes seems to be referring to a stereo-typical mother advising his son on how to deal with life. It is easy to think that the poem just wants to convey a more mature person trying to coach someone to move on. “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” (Kennedy and Gioia 1031) clearly uses the metaphor of the stairway to make readers understand that life is not easy.
Words like “splinters” “boards torn up” and “bare” can be interpreted as hardships in life. The poet’s use of the “crystal” stairs also seems to describe an easy and comfortable life or heaven to some. However, in the light of the times when the poem was written, scholars believe that the message is related to racial discrimination. Aidan Wasley, in the book, Poetry for Students, believes that it becomes easy to see Hughes’s mother figure as something like a racial matriarch addressing her scattered children and exhorting them to “keep on climbing” on their way to freedom.
The lives and beliefs of the authors of the three poems are deeply embedded in the metaphors they used. It is their masterful way of weaving these mere words intricately that convey such powerful messages and remarkable stories that one can only appreciate by reflecting on one’s own decisions and principles. These poetic devices are very effective in making one contemplate and were successful and shall keep the poems truly alive long after their poets have gone.
Keneddy, X. J. , and Dana Gioia. Literature: an introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. New York, New York: Pearson and Longman, 2007. McKenna, John J. “Roethke’s Revisions And The Tone Of My Papa’s Waltz,” 1998. University of Nebraska at Omaha. 15 April 2007 < http://www. mrbauld. com/exrthkwtz. html>. Wasley, Aidan. “An Overview of Mother To Son” Poetry For Students. Gale, 1998. Wsu. edu. Campbell, Donna. Washington State University. 15 April 2007 <http://www. wsu. edu/~campbelld/amlit/dickinsoncriticism. pdf>.