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The American poet, Theodore Roethke, is considered one of the most influential and talented composers of his generation, and ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ is one among many of his exceptional writings. ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ draws from the poet’s childhood relationship with his father sometimes during his early days. It features a boy who, despite fearing his father, still loves him. “The boy is dancing with his drunk father who is described as having dirty palms and knuckles, which are battered” (Jolley 2002).
Considered to be one of the poet’s most exquisite writing, ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ deals with the family theme, love, fear relationships, and confliction.
The poet starts by establishing a mood and selecting a situation by conveying a fact about his father’s drinking. The tone is slightly funny, as the speaker put forward the amount of alcohol in his father’s breath, which is enough to make a child drunk, implying that the father had taken in a substantial amount of potent liquor (Mckenna 1998).
The poet also establishes an intimacy between the speaker (a young boy) and his father. The direct address suggests a sense of love between the speaker and his father.
The feeling of intimacy is further emphasized through the speaker’s description of the physical contact between his son and his father. Perhaps afraid of letting go of his father derived from exemplification of a deadly situation when someone does not want to let another person out of their grasp in fear of losing them.
The boy is in the middle of two conflicting situations; one was presenting love, the other fear. He wants to be close to his father. Still, at the same time, he is afraid of being detached from their closeness, possibly because he is afraid of emotional separation, or he fears being hurt by his father’s drunken careening. The dance, therefore, metaphorically can be suggested to be describing their overall relationship: intimate and practically significant for the boy, but at the same time dizzying and inducing fear and anxiety.
The end of stanza one provides an initial suggestion of a father and his son dancing- waltzing, which is the central event in the poem. Waltzing between the two was paradoxically tricky since it is supposedly a simple dance conducted with much ease. This suggests, on one level, it was a challenge due to the father’s inebriation, thus painting a comical depiction of “a boy dancing with his drunk father” (Edward, 2013). Metaphorically, the dance represents a young boy – father relationship with the speaker, suggesting it is a difficult one, highlighting the difficulty the boy finds in keeping ‘in synch’ to the steps of his father.
At the beginning of stanza two, the speaker reveals the overexcitement of their dance, which seems to clash with the elegance of waltz. “The speaker points out that the dance caused the utensils in the kitchen to fall”, which is ironic with waltzing, which is a gentle dance (Mays, 2014).
In the same stanza, the speaker also introduces an aloof, displeased mother into the scene, as indicated by her “frowned face.” She does not engage in the dance (Mays, 2014). Curiously, the speaker mentions to his mother with the impersonal term, ‘My mother,’ in comparison to his father, whom he addresses directly, which further suggests their intimacy (Edward, 2014). The critical aspects of his mother’s frowned face characterize her as negative, a considerable difference to the poem’s persistent portrayal of the father.
The boy’s closeness with his father is emphasized further in this stanza three. The speaker points out that him by the wrist. “He says the hand that held my wrist,” alluding to his father’s hand holding him. Further, the speaker also presents a note of pain through the father’s action, highlighting their relationship. He also points out that his father was injured on his knuckles, although from his labor. As the speaker and his father continue their waltzing, the father creates a hand rhythm on his head in a strange little gesticulation of inconsistent tapping. The tapping is intended to direct the boy on his steps of dancing and how it necessarily did go ‘with its clumsiness and missed steps” (Jolley 2002). The poet suggests that a relationship that should have been easy and smooth is awkward and stumbling.
At the end of the poem, the poet communicates a breezy conclusiveness, nearly a flourish, to the poem’s proceedings. The dance ends in the bedroom when the father ‘whisked’ the speaker off to bed. However, the boy ‘still clinging’ to his father’s shirt presents an image that suggests he does not want the dance (or their unique relationship) to end, or maybe he is fearful of the boisterousness of his father (Jolley 2002). The final line hints the boy is afraid of death separating his father from him when recalling the earlier suggestion of death. He finds it hard to let go of his father in the end.
In conclusion, My Papa’s Waltz, through the poet, presents an innocent aspect reminiscing a brighter moment in a home setting from the perspective of a small boy who is somewhat in amazement of their father. Even though the child is in awe, the poet also presents something more disturbing. The drunken of the father is a threatening aspect of a peaceful home life if he cannot control himself. The poet thus can maintain a sense of ambiguity throughout the poem by alluding to the relationship between the speaker, which is the child and his estranged father.
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