Literary Analysis - “My Papa’s Waltz”
Theodore Roethke wrote many poems about his father, “My Papa’s Waltz” is one particular poem that is still the source of much debate, both in college classrooms and among established literary critics. Initially, the poem appears to be a young boys fond recollection of a dance with a tipsy, but loving father. Many who read it strongly disagree, and feel that the tone is much more severe, and alludes to a drunken and abusive father. To clarify this argument, one must closely analyze the syntax, and search for the true intent of Roethke’s careful chosen words. Upon close examination, the poem seems to convey an intriguing ambiguity that lends itself to both arguments. The poems title, “My Papa’s Waltz”, is the first indication of the authors intended tone. Roethke had innumerable choices for the title of his poem, so we must consider how differently we might enter into its reading if he had entitled it “My Papa’s Dance”. The word “dance” can have many negative connotations. One that comes readily to mind is the idiom “same old song and dance”. That would seem to indicating that the events within the poem occur with some regularity and consistency. Again, consider how “dance” is used to describe the way boxers move in ring; whereas waltz on the other hand, seems to have a more jovial and spontaneous connotation. Roethke’s use of “Papa” instead of “Father” is another hint of his ambivalence. “Papa” has a much kinder intuitive word association than the sterner “Father” word choice. Roethke is clearly telling us something important with his chosen vocabulary, and if he had wanted the poem to obviously be about an abusive father, he wouldn’t have titled the poem as he did. Moving beyond the title, Roethke’s word choice in the first stanza begins to conjure the negative imagery. Line one, “The whiskey on your breath” conveys a father who has been drinking and is now interacting with his small child (1). The stanza continues with...
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