My Papa’s Waltz

Poetry Explication: My Papa’s Waltz, by Roethke


Poetry is a platform used by people to express what they think, how they feel and their thoughts towards a particular subject. The message of a particular poem is usually put in a way that lets the reader interpret it according to how they understand it. This means that a particular poem can have more than one meaning depending on the reader. The poem “My Papa’s Waltz” by  Roethke is no exception from this aspect. Theodore is clear on the target audience of his poem as he openly talks about his father. This poem is also structured in a way that it has some hidden meaning about its message. Different readers will have different views about what the poem talks about and the real message that it has. The author of this poem, Theodore, tries to show his message by explaining how he used to play as a child with his father who was always drunk. He talks about how his father would pick him up and waltz (dance with him) through the whole house. The element of danger is portrayed here since his father is always drunk. This poem describes to the readers and shows them the insight of how child abuse is like and also how a young boy who wanted to spend time with his father who always came home drunk. Other readers of this poem might be confused on whether they boy is dancing with his drunk father or fighting with him with him. The message of this poem clearly depends on the reader’s perspective and how they view the father.

Analyzing the poem

The poem has used both half and full regular rhyme schemes in all its stanzas. Line 2, “Could make a small boy dizzy” and line 4, “Such waltzing was not easy”, has a half rhyme scheme for the words ‘dizzy’ and ‘easy’ respectively. This is called a half rhyme since only the ending syllables are the only ones that sound the same. The rhyme in this poem helps in putting across the message of a dance as each stanza ends with a rhyme.The poem possesses a closed form because of the poet has used a combination of formal elements in his poem. The poet has used a regular rhyme scheme in every stanza and all the stanzas contain four lines throughout. The poem does not use the style of repetition since there are no repeated lines, words, and stanzas. Roethke has used a language that is positive and negative in that, on one hand, he shows a nice and playful environment of the child playing with his father and on the other hand, shows a dark environment of a drunk father. The poet uses the dancing to symbolize the relationship that is there between the father and son that is love and at the same time fear. The line11 “At every step you missed”, explain a metaphor where the father messes and misses some steps while waltzing and ends up scratching his son’s ear. This, in reality, could mean the father’s mistakes that hurt the kid emotionally in real life.

This poem discusses a father who is drunk and even his breath could make his little son feel nauseous (line 1-2). The first stanza also shows that the small boy finds it difficult to show the love he has for the father and at the same time the fear that he has. The poet also talks about how the father is a man working with his hands because he had dirty hands and rough knuckles (lines 9 and 14). The dance the boy does with his father is not all fun because he keeps injuring his ear on the belt of his dad, ”My right ear scraped a buckle” (line 12). This poem shows the love that the son has for his father and at the same time, the parental issues between the father and the mother who is not happy when the father and son dance since it is messy. Alcohol is another aspect discussed by the author in the poem since the father is drunk. This insists on the idea that things could get out of control at any time. The poet has used poetic devices like assonance where vowels are repeated, ‘still, clinging’, (line 12).

In the poem, lines 7 and 8 that talk about how the mother was unhappy with how the father danced with their son. According to  Gale, Cengage Learning, “the mother does not involve herslf in the dancing because she is displeased which is shown by the frowning on her face” (line 7-8). According to line 7, “My mother’s countenance”, Gale has explained how the mother is thought to be disapproving the waltz because she thinks that the father and the son are making a mess in the kitchen, but does not speak up to try and stop the dancing because maybe she is scared of the drunk husband. The mother is expected not to be in a good mood since there is a drunk man in her kitchen dancing around with her son. Hoewever, in line 8 “Could not unfrown itself”, the mother could also have been happy and enjoying the dance but she did not want to show it to her husband thereby covering up the smile by frowning her face (Gale, Cengage Learning, 2016). (The statements have explained how the Gale , Cengage Learning has helprd explained lines 7-8 ).Lines 15, “Then waltzed me off to bed”  and 16, “Still clinging to your shirt”, are also important because of the way the poet puts them. They show that the father uses the dance to trick his son to bed, even though he is drunk. This shows the love that the boy has with his father and how desperate he is to spend a little time with him.


This is a simple poem because it has a simple diction that leaves the writer to decide on the real message in the poem.The main issue can be a look at family a setting that enjoys the lighter moments between a child and his father and this is a perspective of the child. On the other hand, It can be viewed as a setting that is violent and threatening because of the drunkard father who finds it hard to control himself.








Gale, C. L. (2016). A Study Guide for Theodore Roethke’s “”My Papa’s Waltz””. Farmington         Hills:    Gale, Cengage Learning.












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