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Interpretation of Poem “My Papa’s Waltz” – Theodore Roethke

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In the poem "My Papa's Waltz" written by Theodore Roethke, the interpretation of the poem depends on the readers`perspective. Some people think that this poem is one of a happy exchange between a father and son. Other people believe that this poem has a hidden message of parental abuse. In my point of view, the imagery and language, the symbolism, and tone in the poem gave me the impression of the love between the father and son, not of an abusive relationship.

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“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke is an interesting poem that begins with complexity. Theodore Roethke implicates the aspects of his childhood experience in this poem. This poem is immersed with metaphors, symbolism and imagery that can overwhelm the readers with vagueness and doubts. Upon this poem’s interpretation, some people consider this poem as a parental abuse and some people see it as a son’s cheerful memory of an evening dancing with his father. The metaphors, symbols and tone of this poem bring the impression of a child’s unconditional love for his abusive father. Usually, the waltz is a formal dance in which two people swing back and forth moving in a circular motion. “Papa” is an affectionate word for father. In the title of the poem, ‘Waltz’ is symbolic of a relationship between a son and his father. The title emphasizes a child’s graceful and joyous dance with his father. However there are signs of violence throughout the poem.

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In the first line of the final stanza, it states “You beat time on my head” (Roethke 13). This line tends to make the reader question the innocence of the poem because of Roethke’s choice of the word “beat”. Typically, one would describe this action as tapping or stomping out time, and in Roethke’s first version of the poem he used the line “You kept time on my head”, later revising it to the word “beat” giving a more ominous, negative, more violent, tone to the line (McKenna)

With the father being drunk, it is possible that he could be “happily using his son’s head for a drum” (Fong), but tapping it a bit too hard unnoticing the pain that it is causing the boy, leading the word to become “beat” instead of something more innocent like “kept”. A hard working father usually means a father that has a lot of love for his family, and if one interprets the poem as having violent undertones, this line would not fit as well. Roethke’s father also spent a lot of time in his greenhouses, that were later sold after an argument with Roethke’s uncle (McRoberts).

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In either case, a person’s judgment would depend mostly on the experiences, the cultural, social, and psychological background among others of an individual

A boy indeed needs this kind of experience from his father for him to see not just the strong, matured, and responsible nature of his father.The poem does not explicitly state that the child is being beaten and physically hurt by the father. It is funny and sweet to be able to see a father out of his usual tough and matter of fact persona. It brings him closer to his children.

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Blessing, Richard. “Theodore Roethke: A Celebration.” Tulane Studies in English, 1972.

Fong, Bobby. “Roethke’s ‘My Papa’s Waltz.’” College Literature, vol. 17, no. 1, February 1990.

McKenna, John J. “Roethke’s Revisions and the Tone of ‘My Papa’s Waltz.’” University of Nebraska at Omaha, vol. 11, no. 2, 1998, pp. 34-38.

McRoberts, Patrick. “Roethke, Theodore (1908-1963).” HistoryLink, Theodore. “My Papa’s Waltz.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. New York,: W.W. Norton, n.d. p. 2274. Print.

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