Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”

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Love or Abuse? That is the Question Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” tells the reader of a small boy’s memory of his father. It explains how his father is intoxicated and the scene that goes along with it. Roethke’s style in this poem leaves the reader with the task of determining if he speaks of abuse or a happy reminiscence. Critics describe it as being a “mixture of tenderness and brutality” (Malkoff). In the first two lines, he recounts the smell of his father’s breath. Roethke’s use of this sense was very effective. He used the word whiskey, as it is described, being on the father 's breath, to give a negative image. Who can ever forget a person who presents themselves with the stench of alcohol about them? The amount was so great that it "The whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy" (1-2). As the poem goes on, a picture of a small boy hanging onto his father is instilled in the reader’s mind: “But I hung on like death, such waltzing was not easy” (3-4). We would not normally associate this particular image with a waltz. How can such an elegant dance be used to describe such a scene? This imagery may cause readers to subconsciously decide that the child is in an abusive situation. Next he describes, sarcastically, a playful incident where pans fall off the kitchen shelf: “We romped until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf” (5-6). It was noticed from Roethke’s original draft that he had begun this poem with the vision of girl. He later revised the poem to contain a boy. It is assumed that for the year of 1941 that he saw it as more appropriate for a boy to be involved in this form of rough play than a girl (McKenna). Finally the boy’s mother comes into play. Her expression “Could not unfrown itself” (8). This tells us that the mother was displeased but that she made no attempt at intervene. Therefore, it is assumable that the mother, although displeased, does not fear interment danger for her son. When you see a parent playfully


Cited: Malkoff, Karl. “Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry”. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966, 3, 57. Fong, Bobby. “Roethke’s ‘My Papa’s Waltz.’” College Literature 17.1 (1990): 79-82. McKenna, John J. “Roethke 's Revisions and the Tone of 'My Papa 's Waltz. '” A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews. March 1, 1998, Vol. 11, Issue 2. I certify that the writing in the attached essay, entitled "Paying for College Education," is entirely my own. If it contains any text copied from another source (including websites), I have put those words in quotation marks and have provided a list of sources at the end of my paper. I have also given the source for any ideas or interpretations taken from other sources even if I have stated them in my own words. I have read the material on the "Student Responsibilities" page on this site and understand the penalties for plagiaris.

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