My Papa's Waltz

There are experiences emblazoned on a child's memory that will last a lifetime. Sometimes it is a random picnic or a bedtime ritual. While some people will remember special holidays or a specific gift, others remember life as a series of experiences and emotions. In Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" (1942) the speaker recounts a memory with his father and explores the father and son dynamic. The dance-like rough-housing is a memorable experience for the speaker, whose father's rough nature still expressed love. In what unconventional ways do parents express love for their children?

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Table of contents

    "My Papa's Waltz" At a Glance

    "My Papa's Waltz" Poem Analysis & Summary
    AuthorTheodore Roethke
    Structure4 quatrains
    Rhyme schemeABAB CDCD EFEF GHGH
    MeterIambic trimeter
    ToneA short poem in which a young boy, presumably the poet himself, recounts a moment from his childhood when he danced with his father. The 'waltz' becomes a symbol of the dynamic between the child and his father, characterized by both affection and a sense of unease.
    Summary of "My Papa's Waltz"The poem explores the father and son dynamic.
    Literary devicesImagery, simile, extended metaphor
    ThemesPower and control, ambiguity, parent-child relationships, domestic struggles and tensions.
    • My Papa's Waltz' is a deeply layered and emotionally nuanced poem. The 'waltz', or dance, that the boy and his father engage in can be seen as a metaphor for their relationship. On the surface, it seems affectionate and playful, but a deeper reading reveals hints of roughness and perhaps even abuse.
    • The poem's strength lies in its ambiguity, forcing the reader to grapple with contrasting images and feelings, thereby exploring the complexities of familial relationships.

    "My Papa's Waltz" Summary

    "My Papa's Waltz" is a narrative poem that tells the memory of a little boy playing rough with his father. Told in the past tense using first-person point of view, the speaker describes his father using imagery and expresses a love and appreciation for him despite the father's rough nature.

    The father, characterized as a hardworking man with a physical job, comes home late, somewhat intoxicated but still making time to dance with his son. This physical interaction between father and son, full of energy and clumsy motions, is described with both affection and a sense of danger, hinting at the father's rough, yet caring, demeanor.

    The father's "hand that held [his] wrist" (line 9) is caring, cautious not to drop the son, and "waltzed" the child "off to bed" (line 15) as soon as he arrived home. "My Papa's Waltz" captures a working-class father taking the time to show affection to his son after a long day at work. However, the presence of whiskey and his mother;s frown hints at underlying tensions

    "My Papa's Waltz" Poem

    Below is the poem "My Papa's Waltz" in full.

    The whiskey on your breathCould make a small boy dizzy; But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy.We romped until the pans 5Slid from the kitchen shelf; My mother’s countenance Could not unfrown itself.The hand that held my wrist Was battered on one knuckle; 10At every step you missedMy right ear scraped a buckle.You beat time on my head With a palm caked hard by dirt, Then waltzed me off to bed 15Still clinging to your shirt.

    "My Papa's Waltz" Rhyme Scheme

    Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" is organized into four quatrains, or stanzas consisting of four lines each.

    A stanza is a poetic structure in which lines of poetry are connected and grouped by idea, rhyme, or visual form. The group of lines in the verse of the poem is usually set apart by a space in the printed text.

    Did you know: stanza is Italian for "stopping place."

    The verse, written to mimic a loose ballad, or song, keeps a tempo using a recurring pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, called metric feet.

    A metric foot is a recurring pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that often repeat on a single line of poetry and then on each line throughout.

    The metric foot in this poem is called an iamb. An iamb is a two-syllable metric foot that is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. It sounds like "daDUM daDUM daDUM." There are six syllables on each line, for a total of three iambs per line. This is known as trimeter. Line 9 includes an example of how "My Papa's Waltz" keeps tempo with iambic trimeter:

    "The HAND / that HELD / my WRIST"

    line 9

    The poem follows a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GHGH. The natural rhythm created by the poem's meter and rhyme imitates the swing and momentum of an actual waltz. The form serves to enliven the dance between father and son. Reading the poem draws the audience into the dance as well, and includes the reader in the action.

    The reader sways along to the words, partakes in the playful game, and feels a connection to the poem—similar to that of the one shared between father and son. Connecting the message through dance and play makes the imagery within the poem and the meaning embedded in the words last in the reader's mind.

    "My Papa's Waltz" Tone

    The tone of "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke is one of ambiguity and complexity. The poem simultaneously conveys a sense of childlike enjoyment, as well as a hint of fear or unease. While the rhythm of the poem suggests a playful dance between a father and child, the word choice and imagery hint at a potential darker side of this relationship, adding a layer of tension and uncertainty to the tone,

    "My Papa's Waltz" Analysis

    To appreciate the true meaning of Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" it is necessary to take a deeper look at the poetic devices and diction used to bring meaning to the poem. Through careful analysis, it is clear that the poem is a fond memory for the speaker and not an instance of mistreatment.

    Stanza 1

    The first quatrain of the waltz-like poem begins with a comment that initially paints the father in a bad light. "The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy" (lines 1-2) presents the father as an alcoholic. However, the poem never states he was drunk, just that the amount of alcohol the father drank would make a small boy inebriated. But the father is a grown man, and is not affected as easily. Admitting such waltzing, "was not easy" as he and the father ensued their rascality throughout the house.

    My Papa's Waltz, father and son touching hands, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A father and son bond as they wrestle throughout the house and create a fond memory.

    Stanza 2

    The second quatrain has the pair "romping" (line 5) through the house. The imagery here is a playful and exuberant one, although the mother's face has a frown, perhaps because of the mess the father and son created. However, she does not protest, and it doesn't seem as though the issue is the father being abusive. Rather, the pair are bonding, and accidentally throwing furniture as they waltz and mess around.

    Stanza 3

    The father's hand in stanza 3 is merely "holding" (line 9) the speaker's wrist. The father's "battered knuckle" (line 10) is an indication that he works hard, and is most likely a day laborer. The poetic voice, who has trouble keeping up with the father and the dance, notes that his ear scrapes the buckle when the father misses a step. The jostling and playing inevitably causes them to bump into one another, and the detail here supports the idea that the speaker was rather young, as his height reaches his father's waist.

    Stanza 4

    The final stanza of the poem, and the conclusion of their dance, provides further details that the father is a hard worker and has perhaps arrived home in time for a quick game before taking the child to bed. The father's hands "beat time" (line 13) on the speaker's head, but he is not beating the speaker. Rather, he is keeping tempo and playing with the boy.

    Supporting the fact that the father works hard to support his family, the father's hands are "caked with dirt" from the day's work. He is taking the time to build a bond with the speaker before he "waltzed him off to bed" (line 15). The speaker has a physical closeness to the father that establishes their emotional closeness, as the child was "clinging to his shirt" throughout their playing.

    My Papa's Waltz, man's hands with soil, StudySmarterFig. 2 - A father's hands may appear rough from work, but they show love and care.

    "My Papa's Waltz" Poetic Devices

    Poetic devices add additional meaning and depth to poems. Because many poems are succinctly written, it is necessary to maximize the details by using figurative language and imagery to help connect with the reader. In "My Papa's Waltz", Roethke uses three main poetic devices to connect with the reader and communicate the poem's theme of love.


    Roethke uses imagery to describe the father, the father's and son's interaction, and the action of the poem.

    Imagery is a detail that appeals to the five senses.

    "You beat time on my head

    With a palm caked hard by dirt" (9-10)

    The auditory imagery in lines 9 shows the father using the boy as a drum to imitate the rhythm of music and enhance their playtime together. This detail adds to the dance-like mood of the poem. The diction may initially seem rough, as if the father is beating time, or keeping time, on the boy's head.

    However, the visual imagery describing the father's "palm caked with dirt" (line 10) adds a detail to help the audience understand that the father is a member of the working class who works hard. We see the signs of his love and labor he does to support his son and family on his physical body. His dirty hands indicate that he has arrived home and is playing with the speaker, even before he washes himself off.


    Simile adds a level of description that makes it easier for the audience to connect with the poem.

    A simile is a comparison between two unlike objects using the words "like" or "as".

    "But I hung on like death" (3)

    The simile Roethke uses to describe how tightly the speaker is holding on to his father as they waltz shows the close nature and trust the boy has with his father. He hung onto his father, for protection from falling, "like death" (line 3). The strong visual of a child clinging on like death is compared to the strong bond the father and son share. The son's dependence on his father for care and safety during playtime and life is strong.

    Speaking retrospectively, the voice of the poem looks back on his time with his father without judgment or scorn. The speaker remembers needing his father, and his father being present physically, and emotionally, as he clung on with might.

    Extended metaphor

    An extended metaphor, which starts with the poem's title, adds an element of playfulness to the poem and lightens the mood.

    An extended metaphor is a metaphor, or a direct comparison, that continues through several or many lines in verse.

    "Then waltzed me off to bed

    Still clinging to your shirt." (14-15)

    The entire exchange between the father and son is a waltz, or a dance, between the two. The extended metaphor compares their playful game to a waltz and shows that despite the seemingly rough and deceptive diction, the father and son are bonding through rough play. The father, an active and caring parent, takes the speaker "off to bed" (line 15) to ensure the child got a good night's sleep to finish the metaphor.

    "My Papa's Waltz" Themes

    "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke presents several complex and interrelated themes that delve into the intricacies of familial relationships, particularly between father and son.

    1. Parent-Child Relationships: The primary theme in "My Papa's Waltz" is the nuanced portrayal of a father-son relationship. The poem captures the dichotomy of emotions that a child might feel towards a parent, which is not purely based on love or fear, but a mix of both.

    2. Domestic Struggles and Tension: The theme of domestic struggle is subtly embedded in the poem. The reference to the father's smell of whiskey, the mother's frowning countenance, and the boy being held tightly suggests a certain level of discomfort and tension within the household. Roethke uses diction such as "romped," (line 5) "battered" (line 10), "scraped" (line 12), and "beat" (line 13), which initially seems to create an abrasive tone.

    3. Memory and Nostalgia: The poem can be read as a childhood memory of the speaker. The complex emotions evoked point towards a certain level of nostalgia, where moments of fear and unease are intertwined with love and admiration for the father. The speaker as an adult clings "like death" (line 3) to the memory of the way his father "waltzed [him] off to bed" (line 15).

    4. Power and Control: Another theme the poem touches upon is the concept of power and control. This is symbolized through the 'waltz' itself where the father, seemingly in control, makes the son follow his lead. The power dynamic here is reflective of the traditional family hierarchy.

    5. Ambiguity: Lastly, the theme of ambiguity runs throughout the poem. The duality in the tone and language used by Roethke leaves the interpretation of the poem open to the reader. The waltz could either be a symbol of the playful and loving bond between the father and son, or it could suggest a darker undertone of force and discomfort.

    My Papa's Waltz - Key takeaways

    • "My Papa's Waltz" is written by Theodore Roetheke and was first published in 1942.
    • The poem explores the bond and dynamic between a father and son.
    • The poem is written in a loose ballad form using iambic trimeter.
    • "My Papa's Waltz" depicts the rough play between a father and son as a type of waltz, and shows the relationship between the two to be involved, complicated, and memorable.
    • The son reminisces on the waltz throughout the poem and seems to cling to the memory as he was "clinging to" (line 16) the father's shirt.
    Frequently Asked Questions about My Papa's Waltz

    Is "My Papa's Waltz" a sonnet?

    "My Papa's Waltz" is not a sonnet. But the verse is written to mimic a loose ballad, or song. It keeps a tempo using a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.

    What is "My Papa's Waltz" about? 

    "My Papa's Waltz" is about a father and son playing rough together, and it's compared to a waltz. 

    What is the theme of "My Papa's Waltz"?

    The theme of "My Papa's Waltz" is that the relationship between a father and son can express itself through rough playing, which is a sign of affection and love.

    What is the tone of "My Papa's Waltz"?

    The tone of "My Papa's Waltz" is often playful and reminiscent.

    What poetic devices are used in "My Papa's Waltz"?

    The central poetic devices in "My Papa's Waltz" are simile, imagery, and extended metaphor. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Line 14 implies that the father is 

    The speaker of the poem experiences all of the following except

    The father is dancing with his child because


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