“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodor Roethke is a poem in which the reader experiences a horrific event: the whipping of a child by his father, told in the form of a romantic and beautiful dance – the waltz. The impression one gets from reading this poem is that the speaker, at least at the time the poem was written, does not view this experience as something bad. He tries to beautify the experience by making it a waltz. He also shows, through the use of imagery and rhythm, the conflict between the readers, or the way any other ‘normal’ man would view this experience, and how he sees it, or wants it to be seen (although he does not show his father as completely innocent). It can also be viewed as the Petty Hurst syndrome – meaning having a ‘reality’ so intense and strong that one feels incapable of any other ‘reality’, fearing it can and will be worse.
The poem is composed of four stanzas (quatrain), each consisting of four lines. The rhyme scheme is abab in the first stanza, cdcd in the second, efef in the third, and ghgh in the fourth. The meter is trecet iamb (stressed unstressed – three times per line). The central image in the poem is the metaphor in which the whippings are described as a waltz. The father is leading the son around the house, dancing – not just thrashing around. This is also conveyed through the meter – trecet iamb – the rhythm of the waltz, so the main image is also shown through the meter, giving the reader more of the feeling of a dance in contrast to the ‘secondary images’ which are more associated with the rough experience of a whipping. Given such parameters, the poet instills some kind of relaxation in the reader (possibly even in himself), in order to make the topic – the whipping – more clear, and decreasing the effect of the drunkenness and the whippings, making his father more human.
By this dance metaphor, the whole process of the whipping is messaged. The drunken father, his breath “Could make a small boy dizzy”, yet the boy hangs “on like death”. The word “death” is important. Usually, the word “death” in love poetry shows truthfulness and undeniable love, as in marriage one promises to love till death, to never leave even if what is left is just a memory – as happens in this poem. The boy will love his father to the end; although, a great resentment remains in the memory – the drunkenness, failure (“every step you missed”), and the whipping resulting from these failure and drunkenness.
For each failure, “My right ear scraped a buckle” – The male child is accused of his male parent’s failures. Another manner in which the love for the male parent is shown is in the way the male parent is described. The poet shows his love for and yearning towards him by naming him “Papa” – a term used frequently to describe male parents with whom one has a particular relationship and a certain love. The title itself is misleading; reading “My Papa’s Waltz,” one would anticipate finding a poem about a good and loving father dancing a soft dance. Instead, the poem depicts a whipping father, a monster, not in the poet’s eyes, but in one’s perception. Along with all these, the male parent is described as a poor man, one to be pitied. As we have already seen, he is a failure, drunk, probably a lot, as his breath smells of “whiskey.” He is dirty – his hands are “caked hard by soil” and are “battered on one knuckle.” All in all, he is a poor man for whom everyone will feel. He is someone who needs love. In spite of these depictions of his male parent as a person that he loved and still does, the poet uses “secondary images” – images outside the main image – to demonstrate that the violence existed. He does not reduce the impact of these beatings or their brutality. The beatings were so hard that “pans slid from the kitchen shelf.” The beatings were hard on the poet – “Such waltzing was not easy” – and also made a change in the male child’s point of life.
The poet tells that the male parent beats “time on my head,” meaning the beatings made his childhood go away. Time ran faster for him, beating him as his father did, as if making him mature faster than others. But he does not accuse his male parent of that. One accusing finger does rise, and that is towards the female parent, who “could not unfrown” her “face.” As if the poet’s mother does not respond to stop his father from beating him to maintain her dignity, putting the blame off his father. Another explanation, far-fetched as it may sound, is that of the Pettier Herst syndrome. The significance of this syndrome is that one may enter into a state of life, a “reality,” that, no matter how brutal or harsh it may be, once it is in his mind as an absolute reality, this reality will seem like the most suitable one. Flight is not necessary, and even when the person leaves this world, it will still, in retrospect, be the best situation he has ever been in. It is possible that the narrator in this poem is “afflicted” by this syndrome.
He defends his father because to him it seems that this is the reality he should be in. He describes the whippings as a walk-in because he sees it as such. Although the poem is narrated retrospectively from a grown-up man’s point of view, something remains. The poet does not hate his father for the beatings; on the contrary, he shows us that his love for his father is not and never was lost. And twice during the poem, he talks about “But I hung on” in the first stanza and “Still clinging to your shirt” in the fourth stanza, which gives the feeling that he loved and stayed with his father during his childhood and that he still does so even now when his childhood is no longer with him.