Theodore Roethke was born to Otto and Helen Roethke on born on May 25, 1908. As a child his parents and his uncle owned and operated a greenhouse in Saginaw Michigan. Theodore spent a lot of time helping with his father working in the greenhouse. In 1923 his father died of cancer and shortly thereafter he turned to literature.
His poem "My Papa's Waltz" is a very emotionally stimulating poem. Roethke’s use of ethos in this poem helps establish his creditability. He writes the poem from a first-hand perspective, recounting some very vivid memories from a night with his father. With his use of pathos and ambiguity usually leaves the interpretation of the poem up to the reader. Some people may consider this poem to describe an abusive relationship between a young boy and his father. On the contrary, some believe this poem reflects on fond memories between a father and son.
In the first stanza, Roethke starts off by setting a sort of ominous tone. “The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy” (1-2). Here he reveals to his readers that his father was drunk and the smell of his breath was unbearable. Subsequently, he goes on to describe the manner in which he was holding on to his father. “But I hung on like death / Such waltzing was not easy” (3-4). The simile here shows the boy holding onto his father as tight as he possibly could. It was not an easy task for the child but he was determined not to let go.
Now, if the reader portrays this in a negative fashion it can be interpreted as a drunken father coming home, reeking of whiskey, while the child tries as hard as he can to get through this current beating, or dance as he calls it. However, if the reader sees this in a more positive light, one can almost see the small boy standing on his feet, holding on so he won’t fall, dancing around with his drunken father. Naturally, it would not be easy to maintain your balance while standing on the feet of another person.