The first order of business in a poem is to establish situation and mood, and Roethke selects the father’s drinking as the foremost fact to be conveyed. The tone is slightly comic, as the speaker suggests that there was enough alcohol on the father’s breath to inebriate a child. This observation implies that the father had consumed a substantial amount of whiskey, since the smell of it was very potent. These lines also establish a closeness between the two figures. The poem is a direct address from the son to the father, evoking a feeling of intimacy between them. Line 3
The sense of closeness is further emphasized in this line. Here it is physical closeness, as the child is said to have clutched onto his father. The description “like death” introduces a note of fear or perhaps desperation. A grip “like death” is extremely tenacious, indicating that the person holding on greatly fears the consequences of letting go. The figure is derived from a personification of death as someone who, once he has grasped onto a person, never lets go. The situation here, then, is quite complex. On the one hand, the boy was afraid of letting go of his father, perhaps fearing he would be hurt by his drunken careening. Or perhaps he feared being separated from his father emotionally. He feared a loss of intimacy with his father if he let go, if he didn’t participate in the dance. The dance thus serves as a metaphor for the overall relationship between father and son: intimate and vitally important for the boy, but also dizzying and anxiety provoking. On the other hand, the description of the boy hanging onto his father “like death” also evokes the image of a death-figure clutching the man. This is particularly resonant if we consider that Roethke’s father died when Roethke himself was still a boy. Line 4
This line contains the first mention, outside of the poem’s title, of the waltz. This is the initial indication that the father and son were dancing. Only after clearly...
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