Far from an enjoyable dance

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I found Theodore Roethke's poem "My Papa's Waltz" to be particularly disturbing. It seems to me that throughout the poem he is describing his father abusing him. The fact that he called it a waltz seems ironic because waltz's are meant to be enjoyable dances that you share with a partner.

At first glance the poem may seem to describe a loving relationship between a father and a son, but if you read it closer you can clearly see it is about abuse. His father may have been an alcoholic because the first two lines say " The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy" (13). This suggests that his father had been drinking massive amounts of whiskey if the smell is so strong that it can make a child feel sick. the fact that they "Romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf" (13) and his mothers face had a frown on it suggests that the father and son were not merely playing with one another, the father may have been pushing the sons around hard enough to make the pans fall from the shelf. the mother was upset because she knew she could do anything about it.

The last stanza's first two lines show the abuse more profoundly if read right. At first it seems like the father is doing nothing more than just tapping on his son's head s the he can keep on the beat any rhythm. But, the fact that the father "beat time" in his sons head hints that he was actually 'beating" his son on the head, and not to keep time in any way.

However, the last two lines of the stanza confuse me a little bit. The fact that the son got "waltzed off to bed / Still clinging to [his] shirt" (13) shows that the son may have gotten dragged to bed, but the fact that the son is still "clinging" to his fathers shirt infers that he still has a dependency on his father. This makes me think that there is some kind of love in this relationship but it is more of wavering, or unstable love.

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4 Comments

Rosemary A. McKenzie said:

I agree with you 100% because I do think the waltz is associated with abuse. Within AP Literature we have read that same poem in class and I drew the same conclusion that you made because there are so much evidence that supports it.

RoseMary A McKenzie
St.Thomas, US Virgin Islands
12th Grade
Major: Mass Communications
Recently been accepted to Seton Hill University

Congratulations, RoseMary! Welcome to SHU.

If Roethke intended to write about child abuse, why did he use words like "romped" and "waltzed"? The word "beat" is perfectly harmless within the context of a dance, and the word "battered" refers to the father's knuckle, not the child. So... what can you do to convince me that this poem is really "about" child abuse?

What if I say that this poem is about a working class man whose zest for the pleasures of life extends to playing with his child, and lovingly -- if a little roughly -- putting him to bed? Isn't this manly kind of roughhousing a good way to teach a little boy the toughness he will need in a life of working hard with his hands?

Alyssa Sanow said:

I agree with Julianne that this poem does not describe a fond bonding moment between father and son, but a beating. I agree with all her statements and evidence. In response to Dr. Jerz's question:If Roethke intended to write about child abuse, why did he use words like "romped" and "waltzed"? I would have to say that quite often children who are beating or abused remain in love with and dependent upon their parents. Perhaps if the father was a working man, this was the only time he got to spend with his father and he enjoyed it no matter what the circumstances.

Christopher Dufalla said:

I recall having read this poem in 12th grade AP English. We had much the ame type of discussion. If I recall correctly, we came to feel that the poem described a working father who had partaken of the drink in an attempt to celebrate the end of the work day. The waltz was a drunken dance in which the father took pleasure in putting the child to bed. Unfortunately for the child, the father was rather cumbersome and his inebriation was a cause for some distortion. I think that the child is old enough to understand that the father is under some type of influence, and this is why he clings so very close to him in order to avoid being flung away

The father is not intentionally abusive, just intoxicated and trying to have some fun after a hard day's work. The mother is upset about the clattering pans, but she understands that this is her husband's joy: to take the boy to bed in the waltzing fashion. Perhaps the rough-housing is merely the "side-effect" of the alcohol.

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