In Roethke's poem "My Papa's Waltz," the speaker recollects a dance that he shared with his father when he was a childhood. He gives us a picture of a drunk father romping in the kitchen with his young son, making a mess to the displeasure of a silently frowning mother. The child's ear scrapes the father's belt as he clings on to him. The child notices the battered dirt clad hand of the father that leads the dance. Then, the father waltzes off with the son to put him to bed. The poem offers a jumble of fear, respect, adoration, love, and hurt as the speaker recollects his childhood reminiscences of his father. He comes to terms with the face that his father loved him even though his drunkenness caused him discomfort as a child. Although initially abusive, this poem nevertheless shows us a very complex relationship between a negligent yet loving father and his fearful yet doting son.
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One feels in the beginning that the poem focuses on a drunken abusive father and a fearful son, but reading further into the carefully selected words one notices a conflict of emotions within the speaker. For instance, the speaker says, "...whiskey on your breadth/....small boy dizzy/But I hung on like death/such waltzing was not easy" (Roethke 1-4). The boy is "holding on very tightly, despite great difficulty" (Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary) to the father while they dance. This phrase on one hand reveals the discomfort of the child yet it also shows the child's resolve and determination to prove that he is stronger than other boys are. Some children who idolize their parents will go to any length to gain the parent's approval and respect. In this situation, the loving child puts up with the foul alcoholic breath of the father just to spend time with him where other boys would have given up. We see here a combination of fear, discomfort, as well as adoration on the boy's part.
Another thing that I noticed was the "waltzing" itself which shows the authority of the father over his mother and himself. A waltz is a difficult dance where "the man leads, the woman follows." "The man is in charge of timing movement, choreography; the woman follows and enhances his movement." (Sowerbutts) The father here is the head of the family and the voice of authority meaning that the father enjoys unchallenged power over the family and as such has more influence on the child's life and personality. The son notices the "the hand that held my wrist/was battered on one knuckle" (Roethke 9-10) and "with a palm caked hard by dirt" (Roethke 14) which signifies the son's awareness of the father's hard life and struggle for survival for himself and his family. The father was apparently not directly abusive as the only battered limb in the poem belongs to the father himself and not the mother nor the child. I feel here that the father tries his best to provide for the family and he does so at the cost of his own health, which leads to the alcoholism too. Yet, we do hear about "at every step you missed/my right ear scraped a buckle/ you beat time on my head" (Roethke 11-13). The speaker appears to acknowledge the father's weaknesses and strengths through these phrases. As an adult, the speaker tries to forgive the father for the pain that he inflicted on him as a young boy and remembers the good aspects of his father's personality.
In the second stanza of the poem, the speaker recalls the "waltz" as "romping" in the mother's kitchen while she frowns. The mother only sulks and worries yet she does nothing to stop the dance and is incapable of standing up to the father, which could be from fear of the husband. This creates a complex relationship between the father and the son while the mother plays an almost non-existent role in the child's life. The speaker here discloses a comradeship with his father who plays with him around the kitchen as if he was another child the same age as him. When I look at the last two stanzas, "Then waltz me off to bed/still clinging to your shirt" I get a sense of a loving relationship between a father and son under the strain of the alcohol. The fact that the father is the one, who puts the son to bed further, strengthens the bond between the two of them.
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Not all readers may agree with the way that the father dealt with his son and some may still see this as an abusive relationship. However, from the careful wording of the speaker himself we see a mix feeling and a conflict going on in the mind of the speaker in relation to his father. It is possible that over time, he forgot some of the physical pain and his memory is unreliable about what really happened to him. On the other hand, he does portray the father as a hard-working man, which shows him to be caring and responsible enough to want to provide for his family. If the father was abusive, the child would have grown to hate him yet that is not what we see here. What we do see is a mixture of love, fear, hurt and adoration of the grown son and possibly forgiveness for the negligent yet loving father. In a way, the speaker acknowledges that the father is just a human being with his share of strengths and weaknesses. He forgives his father's mistakes with a natural love felt by an offspring; remembers the fear and struggle of his own childhood.