A Drunken Dance
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, using the word waltz to describe it.
In the first two lines, it recounts the smell of his father's breath and the extent to which it reeked: "The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy" (1-2). As the third and fourth lines are read, 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, a word Webster's Dictionary defines as a ballroom dance in 3/4 time with strong accent on the first beat and a basic pattern of step-step-close. How can such an elegant dance be used to describe such a scene?
The fifth and sixth lines describe, sarcastically, a playful incident where pans fall off the kitchen shelf: "We romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf" (5-6). Finally the boy's mother comes into play during the seventh and eight lines. Her facial expression "Could not unfrown itself" (8). This tells us that the mother was displeased but its rather discerning that she made no attempt at intervening. We would normally think of a mother's love as unconditional and willing to do anything for her son. It really shows the degree of fear the father must have embedded into the mother with his actions.
The eleventh through fourteenth lines describe actual, bodily harm done to the young boy by way of his father's acts: "At every step you missed / My right ear scraped a buckle / You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt" (11-14). We can actually picture the boy clinging to his father as his ear scrapes the father's belt buckle and his watch bumps hard onto the boy's head.
I believe this poem tells a rather disturbing story of a boy's time with his father in a very sarcastic way. I believe the theme to it is the sarcasm itself. It shows how some things that are bad can be described as good. It could be pointing out that the boy is so naive as to think that there is nothing wrong with what has happened. It makes me think of some stories of children who have been abused or simply come from broken homes. They don't know its wrong because they haven't known anything else their whole lives. This could be the case in Roethke's poem, "My Papa's Waltz."
Roethke, Thomas. "My Papa's Waltz." Literature and the Writing Process.
Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X Day, and Robert Funk. 5th ed. Upper
Saddle River: Prentice, 1999. 479