Good “My Papa’s Waltz” By Theodore Roethke Essay Example
Theodore Roethke employs the rhythm and romance of waltz in narrating his experience as a boy that involves a violent interaction with his father. He describes his horrible experience as a child being beaten by his father while his mother only watches the scene without the slightest defiance. The poem provides a discussion on how a young boy sees and reacts to a father’s physical abuse through the poem’s symbolism, imagery and a balanced tone.
The poem is quite short with only four stanzas and sixteen lines. The first two lines of which suggest the bad habit of the father. The persona says, “The whiskey on your breath/ Could make a small boy dizzy.” (lines 1-2) These opening sentences give an overview of the father’s character and the fear that it invokes to the speaker. It implies drunkenness and the violence that such vice embodies. The statement carries a fearful tone as the mere smell of the father’s breath already makes the boy uncomfortable. These sentences serve as prologue that tells about an alcoholic father and a young son. Young as he was, he is still innocent of how alcoholism triggers violent behavior.
The major symbol in the poem is “waltzing” that suggests violent beating and the child’s innocence. The speaker states that, “But I hung on like death: / Such waltzing was not easy.” (lines 3-4) For a boy to use the word “hung on like death,” the experience could have been extremely horrid. Death and waltz are two contrasting concepts that imply that waltz is not used as a symbol of a positive event, but it symbolizes a disheartening phenomenon. The 4th line suggests the failure of his young state of mind and reason to appropriately react to his father’s beatings. The author wants to emphasize that for a child, beating may not necessarily mean violence. Rather, he might perceive it as a difficult game or a dance of waltz in the case of the poem’s narrator.
The succeeding lines create an alarming and disturbing scenario of a mother who does nothing, but watch his son beaten by his husband. The speaker says that, “My mother’s countenance / Could not unfrown itself.” (lines 7-8) This scene is a powerful visual imagery that invokes the feeling of sympathy among the readers. These lines take the audience to the world of the young boy who lives in helplessness because even his mother has no courage to show defiance. The mother watches the beatings in resigned passivity while seeing his son suffer.
In the 9th to 10th lines, the persona switches to a sympathetic tone where he describes the hands of his father. He describes them as, “The hand that held my wrist/ Was battered on one knuckle;” (lines 9-10) This passage suggests that behind the violent man is a pitiful physicality. This is a significant tension in the poem as the readers are torn between hating the father for violently beating his son, or pitying him because of his poor condition.
After thoughtfully providing a picture of a man who deserve mercy, the author switches back to his description of a violent father who mercilessly beats his child. He states that, “At every step you missed/ My right ear scraped a buckle.” (lines 11-12) This lines retell a heart-breaking memory giving a clear visual of how the buckle hurts the kid when the father misses beating him. The picture of a “scraped ear” of a young boy is a disturbing and gruesome scenario.
The last two lines of the poem imply the lasting impact of terror on the child. He says, “Then waltzed me off to bed/ Still clinging to your shirt.” (lines 15-16) These lines suggest that the terror of violence lingers and would stay in the memory of the young boy. Throughout the poem, Roethke employed powerful symbols, vivid imagery and a changing tone (positive-negative-positive-negative) in order to discuss the dark consequences of parental violence that are often severe and life-long.