Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” expresses the speaker’s relationship with his father and his vivid remembrance of his rambunctious behavior. The poet’s attitude towards his alcoholic father is one that he accepts with all its nuances. The reckless father’s conduct though uninviting in general, is acceptable to the poet. He accepts it just as Death is inevitable.
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
The lines explore the spiritual and physical relationship between the father and son. The ‘whiskey’ smell could make a small boy dizzy. His father could be a source of embarrassment to him. Nevertheless, he accepts it with panache and maturity much beyond his years. ‘Waltz’ is a dance that involves couples going round and round. Therefore, it is symbolic of a relationship between two people involving a one-to-one correspondence. The rhythm of the steps points to the harmony of the bond. The phrase “round and round” implies the circle of life, that with repeated turns keeps them going together.
He romped or played about with his father till the pans slid from the kitchen shelf. The above action is emblematic of domestic disturbance and insecurity. The mother bore this act with great endurance and yet her countenance “Could not unfrown itself.”The hand that once held his wrist firmly and guided him, came across as “battered on one knuckle.” His rollicking stance does not allow him to be gentle. Though he tries, the alcohol takes its toll on him. He appears to be manhandling the child. Nevertheless, the child clings onto the carousing father, as he finds his closeness the most secure thing in the world; as if desperately holding on to dear life. At every step the father missed(in life) or went astray, the son’s ear got scraped. He got affected by lapses on part of the father. The words ‘dizzy-easy’, ‘buckle-knuckle ‘point that there was indeed an inherent rhythm in their relationship. Something, that even the poet’s mother could not comprehend.
Due to his disorderly behaviour, the son had matured beyond his age. This is the meaning of the line “you beat time on my head.” The trials and tribulations of their life also advanced the poet maturing, that is referred to as:”With a palm caked hard by dirt” The line also suggests the father’s roughhousing and his crudeness. It also connotes the father’s nature of work in the greenhouse. He takes care to “waltz” him off to bed. It exemplifies how the dance movement that is symbolic had at once entered their daily routine. And though critics mention that -“Roethke expresses resentment for his father” in the poem, it is not so. Firstly, the poet ends the poem with “Still clinging to your shirt.” Also note that the title has the word “My” Roethke could have simply phrased it as “Papa’s Waltz” .”My” denotes the innate love, possessiveness and sense of belonging he experienced with his father. The father tries his best to establish a kind of harmony, but cannot. Therefore Roethke lends preference to the father’s intention than action.
As the poet clings onto the father, Theodre Roethke may also imply to his own thought-process- his clinging onto the memory of his father frantically ,whom he lost when he was just fourteen. The poignancy sets in. Therefore, the poem comes across as an elegiac note to a father .