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My Papa's Waltz

My Papa's Waltz

There are experiences emblazoned on a child's memory that will last a lifetime. Sometimes it is a random picnic or a bedtime ritual. While some people will remember special holidays or a specific gift, others remember life as a series of experiences and emotions. In Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" (1942) the speaker recounts a memory with his father and explores the father and son dynamic. The dance-like rough-housing is a memorable experience for the speaker, whose father's rough nature still expressed love. In what unconventional ways do parents express love for their children?

"My Papa's Waltz" At a Glance

Poem"My Papa's Waltz"
WrittenTheodore Roethke
Published1942
Structure4 quatrains
Rhyme schemeABAB CDCD EFEF GHGH
Meteriambic trimeter
MeaningThe poem explores the father and son dynamic.
Literary devicesimagery, simile, extended metaphor
ThemeLove and how love is communicated in different ways.

"My Papa's Waltz" Summary

"My Papa's Waltz" is a narrative poem that tells the memory of a little boy playing rough with his father. Told in the past tense using first-person point of view, the speaker describes his father using imagery and expresses a love and appreciation for him despite the father's rough nature. The seemingly abusive relationship reveals itself to be one of care and mutual respect through careful analysis. The father's "hand that held [his] wrist" (line 9) was caring, cautious not to drop the son, and "waltzed" the child "off to bed" (line 15) as soon as he arrived home—prioritizing his son's need for rest over his own needs. "My Papa's Waltz" captures a working-class father taking the time to show affection to his son after a long day at work.

"My Papa's Waltz" Poem

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans 5
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle; 10
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed 15
Still clinging to your shirt.

"My Papa's Waltz" Rhyme Scheme

Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" is organized into four quatrains, or stanzas consisting of four lines each.

A stanza is a poetic structure in which lines of poetry are connected and grouped by idea, rhyme, or visual form. The group of lines in the verse of the poem is usually set apart by a space in the printed text.

Did you know: stanza is Italian for "stopping place."

The verse, written to mimic a loose ballad, or song, keeps a tempo using a recurring pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, called metric feet.

A metric foot is a recurring pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that often repeat on a single line of poetry and then on each line throughout.

The metric foot in this poem is called an iamb. An iamb is a two-syllable metric foot that is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. It sounds like "daDUM daDUM daDUM." There are six syllables on each line, for a total of three iambs per line. This is known as trimeter. Line 9 includes an example of how "My Papa's Waltz" keeps tempo with iambic trimeter:

"The HAND / that HELD / my WRIST"

line 9

The poem follows a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GHGH. The natural rhythm created by the poem's meter and rhyme imitates the swing and momentum of an actual waltz. The form serves to enliven the dance between father and son. Reading the poem draws the audience into the dance as well, and includes the reader in the action. The reader sways along to the words, partakes in the playful game, and feels a connection to the poem—similar to that of the one shared between father and son. Connecting the message through dance and play makes the imagery within the poem and the meaning embedded in the words last in the reader's mind.

"My Papa's Waltz" Analysis

To appreciate the true meaning of Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" it is necessary to take a deeper look at the poetic devices and diction used to bring meaning to the poem. Through careful analysis, it is clear that the poem is a fond memory for the speaker, and not an instance of mistreatment.

Stanza 1

The first quatrain of the waltz-like poem begins with a comment that initially paints the father in a bad light. "The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy" (lines 1-2) presents the father as an alcoholic. However, the poem never states he was drunk, just that the amount of alcohol the father drank would make a small boy inebriated. But the father is a grown man, and is not affected as easily. Admitting such waltzing, "was not easy" as he and the father ensued their rascality throughout the house.

My Papa's Waltz, father and son touching hands, StudySmarterA father and son bond as they wrestle throughout the house and create a fond memory. pexels.

Stanza 2

The second quatrain has the pair "romping" (line 5) through the house. The imagery here is a playful and exuberant one, although the mother's face has a frown, perhaps because of the mess the father and son created. However, she does not protest, and it doesn't seem as though the issue is the father being abusive. Rather, the pair are bonding, and accidentally throwing furniture as they waltz and mess around.

Stanza 3

The father's hand in stanza 3 is merely "holding" (line 9) the speaker's wrist. The father's "battered knuckle" (line 10) is an indication that he works hard, and is most likely a day laborer. The poetic voice, who has trouble keeping up with the father and the dance, notes that his ear scrapes the buckle when the father misses a step. The jostling and playing inevitably causes them to bump into one another, and the detail here supports the idea that the speaker was rather young, as his height reaches his father's waist.

Stanza 4

The final stanza of the poem, and the conclusion of their dance, provides further details that the father is a hard worker and has perhaps arrived home in time for a quick game before taking the child to bed. The father's hands "beat time" (line 13) on the speaker's head, but he is not beating the speaker. Rather, he is keeping tempo and playing with the boy. Supporting the fact that the father works hard to support his family, the father's hands are "caked with dirt" from the day's work. He is taking the time to build a bond with the speaker before he "waltzed him off to bed" (line 15). The speaker has a physical closeness to the father that establishes their emotional closeness, as the child was "clinging to his shirt" throughout their playing.

My Papa's Waltz, man's hands with soil, StudySmarterA father's hands may appear rough from work, but they show love and care. Pexels.

"My Papa's Waltz" Poetic Devices

Poetic devices add additional meaning and depth to poems. Because many poems are succinctly written, it is necessary to maximize the details by using figurative language and imagery to help connect with the reader. In "My Papa's Waltz", Roethke uses three main poetic devices to connect with the reader and communicate the poem's theme of love.

Imagery

Roethke uses imagery to describe the father, the father's and son's interaction, and the action of the poem.

Imagery is a detail that appeals to the five senses.

"You beat time on my head

With a palm caked hard by dirt" (9-10)

The auditory imagery in lines 9 shows the father using the boy as a drum to imitate the rhythm of music and enhance their playtime together. This detail adds to the dance-like mood of the poem. The diction may initially seem rough, as if the father is beating time, or keeping time, on the boy's head. However, the visual imagery describing the father's "palm caked with dirt" (line 10) adds a detail to help the audience understand that the father is a member of the working class who works hard. We see the signs of his love and labor he does to support his son and family on his physical body. His dirty hands indicate that he has arrived home and is playing with the speaker, even before he washes himself off.

Simile

Simile adds a level of description that makes it easier for the audience to connect with the poem.

A simile is a comparison between two unlike objects using the words "like" or "as".

"But I hung on like death" (3)

The simile Roethke uses to describe how tightly the speaker is holding on to his father as they waltz shows the close nature and trust the boy has with his father. He hung onto his father, for protection from falling, "like death" (line 3). The strong visual of a child clinging on like death is compared to the strong bond the father and son share. The son's dependence on his father for care and safety during playtime and life is strong. Speaking retrospectively, the voice of the poem looks back on his time with his father without judgment or scorn. The speaker remembers needing his father, and his father being present physically, and emotionally, as he clung on with might.

Extended metaphor

An extended metaphor, which starts with the poem's title, adds an element of playfulness to the poem and lightens the mood.

An extended metaphor is a metaphor, or a direct comparison, that continues through several or many lines in verse.

"Then waltzed me off to bed

Still clinging to your shirt." (14-15)

The entire exchange between the father and son is a waltz, or a dance, between the two. The extended metaphor compares their playful game to a waltz and shows that despite the seemingly rough and deceptive diction, the father and son are bonding through rough play. The father, an active and caring parent, takes the speaker "off to bed" (line 15) to ensure the child got a good night's sleep to finish the metaphor.

"My Papa's Waltz" Themes

The theme in "My Papa's Waltz" is love and how love is communicated in different ways. At first glance the relationship can be misconstrued as abusive. Roethke uses diction such as "romped," (line 5) "battered" (line 10), "scraped" (line 12), and "beat" (line 13), which initially seems to create an abrasive tone. However, it is revealed to be moreso a playful tone, as it is the father's method of roughhousing to build trust with his son.

When analyzed in context, it is clear that the physically playful relationship and waltz-like game the speaker plays with his working-class father is fun, lighthearted, and a cherished memory. Parents connect and develop complicated and strong relationships with their children in a variety of ways. For the father and son in this poem, the connection looks different than the typically expected hugs and kisses between parent and child but is still a cherished memory, which has left an indelible impression on the speaker, as he reminisces. The wrestling and rough play the duo used as part of a night routine before the father "waltzed [him] off to bed" (line 15) built a strong relationship that the child, even as a grown adult speaking in past tense, clung to "like death" (line 3) throughout life.

My Papa's Waltz - Key takeaways

  • "My Papa's Waltz" is written by Theodore Roetheke and was first published in 1942.
  • The poem explores the bond and dynamic between a father and son.
  • The poem is written in a loose ballad form using iambic trimeter.
  • "My Papa's Waltz" depicts the rough play between a father and son as a type of waltz, and shows the relationship between the two to be involved, complicated, and memorable.
  • The son reminisces on the waltz throughout the poem and seems to cling to the memory as he was "clinging to" (line 16) the father's shirt.

Frequently Asked Questions about My Papa's Waltz

"My Papa's Waltz" is not a sonnet. But the verse is written to mimic a loose ballad, or song. It keeps a tempo using a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.

"My Papa's Waltz" is about a father and son playing rough together, and it's compared to a waltz. 

The theme of "My Papa's Waltz" is that the relationship between a father and son can express itself through rough playing, which is a sign of affection and love.

The tone of "My Papa's Waltz" is often playful and reminiscent.

The central poetic devices in "My Papa's Waltz" are simile, imagery, and extended metaphor. 

Final My Papa's Waltz Quiz

Question

What does the simile about death in stanza one indicate? 

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Answer

The simile shows the speaker is looking to the father for safety and security. For constancy. 

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Question

What is the rhyme scheme in "My Papa's Waltz"?

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Answer

ABAB CDCD EFEF GHGH

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Question

What is the meter in "My Papa's Waltz"?

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Answer

The meter is iambic trimeter

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Question

Why does Roethke choose this form to use in "My Papa's Waltz"?

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Answer

The form imitates a ballad and creates a song-like rhythm, like a dance.

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Question

What details tell the reader that the father in "My Papa's Waltz" is a hard worker? 

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Answer

His hands are scratched and caked with dirt

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What is the extended metaphor in "My Papa's Waltz"?

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Answer

A waltz is compared to a game of rough housing between father and son

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Question

What is a simile?

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Answer

A comparison between two unlike things using the words "like" or "as".

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Question

How does the audience know that the father is not being abusive in stanza 4? 

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Answer

The father is playing because he is able to "beat time" or keep tempo on the speaker's head, but is not literally beating the speaker. 

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Question

What signs indicate the father and son have a close emotional relationship?

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Answer

The speaker looks to the  father for security and stability. He clings to him.

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Question

What is the tone in "My Papa's Waltz"?

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Answer

playful, despite some of the rough language which imitates the wrestling game.

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Question

What imagery in stanza 2 indicates it is a game?

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Answer

The detail "romped" shows a playful nature.

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The father is dancing with his child because

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he is happy.

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The title of the poem suggests that the dance is

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created by Papa.

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Line 14 implies that the father is 

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a laborer.

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The speaker of the poem experiences all of the following except

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frowning.

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Question

The dominant meter of the poem is 

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Answer

iambic trimeter.

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