At first glance, My Papa’s Waltz plants an image of child abuse in the reader’s mind. Certainly to a reader of the 21st century generation, everything has a “dark meaning” behind it. But, with a closer look at what Roethke is really implying, it becomes clear to the audience that the story alludes to a much lighter meaning. To better understand this poem, it helps to know that this was written in 1942, when people’s activities, habits, and even the language were quite different than they are today.
In the first two stanzas, a very young Roethke tells of his drunken father dancing with him in the kitchen. The imagery of the smell of whiskey on his fathers breath, and the stumbling through the kitchen making mother angry, certainly doesn’t make this dance seem to be as elaborate and beautiful as a waltz. With the combination of whiskey, pots and pans falling off the shelf, and a young boy involved, its easy to assume that there is some sort of violent act in effect here. The last two stanzas continue to plant the illusion that the father is abusive.
Roethke draws attention to the man’s hands. The one holding the boys wrist is “battered,” and the other is “caked hard by dirt. ” The reader also learns how young and small the boy is, by the line “… My right ear scraped a [belt] buckle. ” All of this together makes it sound like there is foul play involved, but that is not at all the case here. In a different light, everything in this poem is much more innocent than what the modern reader may think is implied. In the first stanza, the whiskey breath is not directly connected to alchoholism.
In fact, alcoholism was not a common word that was used in 1942. It was extremely common for a man to come home from a hard day of work and have a strong liquor drink to relax. It still is in some families and cultures today. Roethke adds in the poem that the mother’s expression was not pleasent, which tells the reader that maybe dad had a little too much with dinner (I hate that look! ). If he was doing something horribly wrong, theres no doubt that mom would be doing something more than scowling in the corner.
The father’s hands were described in a sense of hard labor, not battered by abusing his child. Roethke’s real father and unlce owned a large greenhouse operation, therefore as a child he was accoustomed to having a hard working dad and it shows in this poem. Another line that can be confused with some sort of cruelty is the line that states “You beat time on my head. ” “Beating time” in this has nothing to do with striking another individual. Remember the title is My Papa’s Waltz. The father was doing nothing more than keeping time to his dance steps by patting it on his son’s head.
In fact, the poem was written in a close rythmic structure to that of a waltz 3/4 rythem. Through all of this, the young boy seems to be very obedient and actually very loving, which is shared mutually by his father. This is confirmed in the last two lines, “Then waltzed me off to bed, still clinging to your shirt. ” The end of this poem reminded me of my parent’s routine to get me and my siblings to sleep when we were that young. Mom had her lullabies, and dad had his version, which in this case was a waltz down the hallway to bed.