My Papa’s Waltz

Author Theodore Roethke (1908–1963)
First Published 1942; collected in The Lost Son and Other Poems, 1948
Type of Poem Lyric

The Poem

In "My Papa’s Waltz," Theodore Roethke imaginatively re-creates a childhood encounter with his father but also begins to attempt to understand the meaning of the relationship between them. The poem may be read as a warm memory of happy play, but when one is familiar with the rest of Roethke’s work, a darker view of the event emerges. Although the poem is only sixteen short lines, it is one of Roethke’s most moving and most frequently anthologized poems.

Theodore Roethke was born and grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, where his father and uncle operated a large and successful greenhouse. Sometimes Roethke’s father would stay up late into the night watering and otherwise tending to his plants. After a drink to relax, he would swing his son Theodore around the kitchen in a bearlike dance and then carry him off to bed. Roethke stated in an interview that his father would hook his son’s feet through the father’s rubber bootstraps and, with Theodore’s feet thus trapped, haul the youngster about.

Roethke’s poetic description of this scene conveys both the father’s love for the son and the son’s fear of this overpowering event, a combination which explains why the poem has haunted so many readers. At first the child finds merely the smell of the alcohol on his father’s breath overwhelming, but he endures the experience and hangs on to his father’s shirt: "Such waltzing was not easy." The "waltz" is so violent that pots and pans begin to fall to the floor, and the audience of this intended hilarity is not amused: "My mother’s countenance/ Could not unfrown itself."

This activity comes as a release after the father’s hard work in the greenhouse: "The hand that held my wrist/ Was battered on one knuckle;" and "You beat time on my head/ With a palm caked hard by dirt." What is fun for the adult is an ordeal for the child. When his father misses a step in his wild dance, the child’s ear scrapes against his father’s belt buckle. This detail also indicates that the child is quite small, since, while standing on his father’s boots, his head reaches barely past his father’s waist; this account must be a recollection of very early childhood.

The entire experience acts as a sort of dramatic lullaby, as it is the last event of the day before bedtime. The child, however, is hardly relaxed and ready for sleep, since to survive the "waltz," he has had to "cling" to his father’s shirt; he continues to do so as he is carried away to bed.

Forms and Devices

Roethke uses a number of poetic devices that reinforce the meaning of the poem; the meter, although it is iambic, sometimes adds an extra feminine syllable at the end of the second or fourth lines, such as "Could make a small boy dizzy" and "Such waltzing was not easy." The additional foot produces a stumbling effect that adds to the poem’s description of a clumsy waltz.

The poem’s short lines also reinforce the fact that this experience is happening to a child. In his later poetry, Roethke uses nursery rhymes, jingles, and playground taunts to suggest the world of children to which he was trying to return in imagination and spirit. In "My Papa’s Waltz," however, there is nothing to imagine, since the incident really happened—apparently more than once. Roethke wants the reader to identify with the child, not the adults in the poem, so he not only writes the poem from the viewpoint of a child but also uses the short lines common in poetry written for children (Roethke himself wrote two such volumes) and in the verses that children themselves write. "Papa" is a child’s term for a father; nevertheless, the reader is not allowed to forget that this poem is an adult remembrance of an event from childhood. "Countenance," for example, is not a word that a child would be likely to use to describe someone’s face.

The diction of the poem also underscores the child’s sense of fright at the experience. Although at first reading the poem may seem funny, with utensils falling in slapstick fashion as the father and child bang around the kitchen, it is clearly not amusing to the child who has to hold on tightly to his father to avoid falling like the pots and pans. Dazed by the whiskey on his father’s breath, he must hang on "like death." At the end of the dance, he is still "clinging" to his father’s shirt, not embracing his father’s body with warmth. From the child’s perspective, the "waltz" has been something to endure, not to enjoy.

Themes and Meanings

In "My Papa’s Waltz," Roethke unites two of his more important themes—his attempt to understand his relationship with his father and his use of the dance as a metaphor for life itself.

Roethke’s father, Otto, was a person who enjoyed the outdoors and the pursuits usually associated with masculinity: sports, hunting, and fishing. Like most fathers, he wanted his son to be like him, but it was clear very early in Theodore’s life that he could not and would not follow in his father’s footsteps. For example, Theodore subscribed to a poetry journal when he was in the seventh grade. In a pattern common in many families, Otto Roethke loved his son but could not approve of his path in life; Theodore loved his father but was unable to demonstrate that love in ways that his father could understand. Worse, Otto died while Theodore was still a teenager, so the father never learned what a leading role in his chosen field the son would play—nor did Theodore have a chance during his father’s lifetime to resolve the differences between them.

Much of Roethke’s mature work embodies his attempt to sort through this relationship and, ultimately, end it, so that the poet could be free to become not merely the son of his father but himself. "The Lost Son," which many critics regard as Roethke’s breakthrough work (in which he first asserts himself most forcefully in his own poetic manner), concerns his attempts to come to grips with the death of his father. Although the father has died, it is the son, unsure of his identity, who is lost. Ironically, in trying to become free of the memory of his judging father, Roethke discovers how much like the older man he is.

The point of connection between the two is the greenhouse and the world of plants that Roethke’s father nurtured. Here the tender side of Otto’s nature asserted itself, for it takes patience and loving care to raise plants; they will not grow at the point of a gun or as a result of threats. "My Papa’s Waltz" significantly occurs after a long day’s work at the greenhouse, where the father has developed a "hand … battered on one knuckle" and "a palm caked hard by dirt."

The father has fulfilled himself in his work and wants to show his love for his son, but only after taking a drink (or three) to unwind. Like many men, he finds it difficult to express love, even in a physical way, without first becoming someone else through the aid of drink. Men must still be men, so the manner of expression of that love is a roughhouse "romp," not a hug or a kiss. Theodore, who later failed during the hunting and fishing trips in which his father made him participate, does not make a very good dancing partner, either. He is not a willing dancer, but is dragged along; a child, he has no choice but to acquiesce.

The poem also suggests that the "waltz" may be the father’s unconscious way of punishing his son, of demonstrating that, even in the feminine and romantic world of the dance, a man must be tough. Is it really necessary to beat time on the boy’s head? Does he understand that he may be hurting his child with the scraping buckle? Whatever his intentions, the waltz becomes a seal on the day’s activities, a last bit of interaction before the boy is put to bed.

In Roethke’s later poetry, he develops the metaphor of the dance as a symbol for life lived to the fullest. To Roethke, a beautiful dance most of all symbolizes love, fulfillment, and union with the rest of life, as in "I Knew a Woman," "The Waking," and "Four for Sir John Davies." The first appearance of a dance in Roethke’s poetry is "My Papa’s Waltz," and, significantly, because the dance is between the poet and his father, the dance itself is unlovely and, to the child, frightening, and its meaning is ultimately ambiguous. The ambiguity extends to the rest of the poem. Does the child’s mother frown because of the father’s tipsiness, the destruction wreaked by the dance, the violence of the dance itself, or the fact that it is imposed upon the child? The welter of meanings and associations means that each reader must judge the poem for himself or herself, perhaps drawing on memories of adult expressions of love that were too strong for a child. This confusion also keeps the poem fresh and contributes to its continued life.

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The Poetry of Roethke

Author Theodore Roethke (1908–1963)

It used to be a commonplace in discussion of the poetry of Theodore Roethke to emphasize the variety, the differences between his work as he passed through various "phases." It is true that there is variety and there are differences at every stage of his work as he matured as a poet. Now that he is gone, however, and now that it is possible to look at his work as a whole, it is surprising how much of his future work, his interests and the directions he would later explore, veins that he would later mine, is indicated in OPEN HOUSE, mostly written during the decade preceding World War II. (It is to be remembered that though Roethke was often grouped with Richard Wilbur and Robert Lowell as one of the three leading poets of his generation, he was, in fact, ten years older than both of these poets and a good deal behind them in receiving an equivalent critical recognition). It was and is easy to be deceived by the poems of OPEN HOUSE. They are short, quiet, rather plainly and strictly formal, evidently subdued and modest. Their artistry is understated, and they blithely ignore some of the critical fiats prevalent at the time. They have a kind of hewn and carved simplicity, with minimal attention paid to the intellectual ambiguity, the forms of irony and wit, which were becoming fashionable. They make frequent and familiar use of abstractions, which had become the equivalent of dirty words to poets and critics who took their standards of judgment at second hand from Eliot and Pound. One has to imagine the effect of, for example, the second stanza of the title poem upon the conditioned reader of that period. Except for the poet’s obvious use of rhetorical paradox, which was very acceptable at that time, his lines break all the rules. Few, if any critics caught in the web of time have ever been able to exercise the necessary self-transcendence to acknowledge the validity of another and different approach. It is not surprising that OPEN HOUSE, which turns out to have been the first public statement of a poet of acknowledged greatness, was largely ignored. Contemporary literary history would seem to indicate that this is the fate of all the truly important writers of the modern period. It was hard then to see the virtues of this work and altogether too easy to label it as the quiet and unassuming verse of an English teacher who was obviously a little too removed from the action, a little out of touch with the exciting center of the literary scene. Then, also, there was World War II whose gory clamor drowned all but the loudest voices.

THE LOST SON came after the war and after the successes achieved by Robert Lowell in LORD WEARY’S CASTLE and Richard Wilbur in THE BEAUTIFUL CHANGES. Some changes in method were immediately evident. The shorter lyric poems shied away from abstraction, coming close at times to the purity of imagism in the exact rendering of the concrete image without regard to generalized comment by the poet and, inevitably the texture seemed tougher and more conventionally antipoetic. The final stanza of "Cuttings I" is illustrative and shows as well what the poet can do by intense and precise concentration on a single, small action.

A substantial number of the shorter poems in THE LOST SON are more explicitly personal than before, deriving directly from his experience of growing up around a greenhouse. Some of the titles tell the story: "Root Cellar," "Forcing House," "Weed Puller," Orchids," "Moss-Gathering," "Old Florist," "Transplanting," "Child on Top of a Greenhouse," "Flower Dump," "Carnations." For the most part these poems are freer in form than the earlier poems, and when the poet does return to the strictness he had observed, as, for example, in the now widely anthologized "My Papa’s Waltz," strict form is used more for humor and irony, which was, at that time, a more acceptable strategy.

With so many poets now engaged in the academic life, either patronized by or servants to the colleges, depending on one’s point of view, it was almost inevitable that a genre of the academic poem would develop. As the genre has developed, it is much like the familiar Middle English poem in which the monk or scholar announces the coming of spring and bewails his fate and vocation which requires him to sit at a desk inside with a chained manuscript while outside the world is exploding with new life. Most of our poets have tried a version of this "updated" genre, bemoaning the university’s apparent isolation from "real life," and adding the modern element of criticism against a large and impersonal institution. Roethke’s "Dolor" is one of the most successful and memorable of this kind, precisely because of its richness and multiplicity of things, its condensation of these things into a single evocative impression. Saul Bellow has said in talks to students that his novel THE VICTIM, told exactly in the "correct" method of narration, can be considered his "Ph.D. thesis," a kind of payment to Caesar to be allowed the privilege of rendering his art as he chooses. Yet THE VICTIM is a fine and in many ways original novel. Similarly it is possible to view the fine shorter poems of THE LOST SON as demonstrable proof that Theodore Roethke could do what was expected and demanded and yet in a highly original manner.

But if Roethke paid the piper and handsomely with the shorter poems, it was the long title poem which made people sit up and take notice. "The Lost Son" was something quite new in our poetry. A long poem, in an original and independent form, it was a kind of dramatic monologue, but an interior monologue, an objectification of the nearly ineffable drama and history of the psyche and in this case of a deeply tormented and troubled psyche. Its method can best be illustrated by analogy. To an extent Roethke availed himself of the techniques of surrealism, and to an extent, like other modern painters, he used the resources of primitive arts and forms of expression to create an effect reminiscent of totem objects and cave paintings, on the work of children. But, more important, he found a logic of images, often fleeting and ghostly images to be sure but always palpable and concrete, to represent the shades and states of being far more complex than other poets had been able to suggest when they started from the outside and evoked the inner drama by hints and clues and shards. The given setting was the mysterious landscape of consciousness with the unconscious just at the edge of the horizon, and all this spelled out in words and images. The effect was ragged, nervous, raw, a grotesque vision. The poet dared all and risked everything, moving in unknown territory, a realm with more questions than answers. Out of context, he risked the danger that in his search for meaning and articulation he would come up only with sheer gibberish. This new method showed difficulty and knotty complexity in a new form and with a new intent, by the articulation of these obscurities to bring light; a poetry which by definition trembled on the verge of madness or mysticism.

This new direction caused a considerable stir in the critical world. Roethke could no longer be labeled. If he could not be identified as a member of a "school" and if, at the same time, he was not setting a new direction for some future "school" to follow, he was undeniably an original and attention would have to be paid. "The Lost Son" was, for the poet, the beginning of one of those remarkable bursts of creative energy and inspiration which from time to time seem to come with dazzling largesse into the lives of great writers. In 1951 he published PRAISE TO THE END! with further and deeper explorations of this new mode, including the much praised "The Shape of the Fire," with its opening lines which shocked those as yet unfamiliar with his method.

With PRAISE TO THE END! and THE WAKING Roethke established for himself a place. THE WAKING earned him the Pulitzer Prize for 1953, and his literary fortunes had turned for the better. During the 1950’s he became one of the most prolific and widely published of our poets, going his own way and marvelously aloof from the sweaty pseudo-struggle between the "Beats" and the "Academics" which riddled and cluttered the literary journals and little magazines.

We have a tendency to rejoice in any success story, but at the same time the American public, including its poets, has an intense desire to classify work, to give the works of an artist a kind of brand name, as if to name a thing were to comprehend it and eventually to own it. Roethke was always much too independent of spirit to be bought and owned by prizes, recognition, or even the knowledge of personal achievement. He pushed himself restlessly to try new and different variations. At the same time that he was writing these profound and knotty psychic monologues he was writing shorter pieces in a variety of modes, delightful and meaningful children’s verse and some of the finest love lyrics of our century. His talent was wide and encompassing. He could write, for children of all ages, such delightful poems as "The Cow"; he could write, with high heterosexual gusto, the now celebrated "I Knew a Woman"; and he could take a shopworn, weary form like the villanelle and make it sing as if he had made it for the first time, as in "The Waking."

No wonder that by the middle of the 1950’s Theodore Roethke seemed to many of our most responsible critics and the elderly guardians of art to be the most important poet writing in English.

WORDS FOR THE WIND: COLLECTED VERSE OF THEODORE ROETHKE, appearing in 1958, won the National Book Award and gave his readers a chance to view Roethke’s work as a whole for the first time. It was in fact, more a selected volume than a true collected book, for he dropped and eliminated some poems, revised and rearranged others, but even so it was a volume of impressive length which few if any of his contemporaries could have equaled, running more than two hundred close-packed pages and illustrating all the variety of his past work and indicating in its concluding section of previously uncollected poems, some of the directions he was following at the time. The book opens with the title poem from OPEN HOUSE and now only the insentient could fail to recognize how true and how prophetic, how completely stated were the quiet and rigorous lines of the first stanza of that poem. He had said what he was doing and was going to do. He had introduced himself and his subject. But no one had listened then. WORDS FOR THE WIND gave them, to begin, a second chance.

The book brought Roethke immediate recognition. He was now fifty years old and it had taken almost twenty years for this recognition, but it had happened. Of special interest to his readers were the two long poems, "The Dying Man: In Memoriam: W. B. Yeats" and "Meditations of an Old Woman." "The Dying Man" caught the rhythms and cadences of Yeats, yet assimilated them into the manner and vocabulary of Roethke. It was more than a salute and memorial to a great poet. It demonstrated dramatically the influence of the earlier master on the younger poet and helped the reader to see a certain analogy or affinity between the two poets. Yeats, too, by his Irishness and special interests and concerns was just outside the literary scene of his own day. It was possible as well to see that Roethke, like Yeats, was more traditional, part of the grand tradition which ignores or transcends fashions if it can, than anyone had previously realized. Finally, there was a wish, a hope to be derived from this deliberate analogy. Yeats alone of the century’s early masters had a career that paralleled his long life. While the others wrote less and less, if at all, standing pat on their finished work, Yeats had written some of his finest poetry as an old man, proving once and for all that maturity need not necessarily stifle lyric impulse. Roethke, after an amazing burst of creativity, had collected his poetry, but, since his powers seemed never stronger, it could be hoped that he might go on to even greater things. "Meditations of an Old Woman," a long and beautifully realized poem in five parts, offered a clue. Here images and pieces from all the early poems, familiar motifs reappeared, but in a new guise. All the intensity of the psychic poems and much of the complexity were present, except that now, through the voice of someone else, a fully realized character, there was a difference. There was a difference, too, in the seeming clarity and logic of the poem; scales of difficulty had fallen away, perhaps partly because the reader was now familiar with the personal conventions, the signs and symbols of the poet, but even more so because the poet seemed more secure in his knowledge of their wider meanings and, thus, more able to use and to apply rhetorically what had once seemed almost incantatory. Some of his personal ease and security shows itself in his ability to focus the kind of concentrated attention upon details which would not have interested him earlier.

The final section "What Can I Tell My Bones?" takes as its theme the terror and release of dying, the fear of death and the aspiration of the caged spirit to be free. On the one hand there is the inexorable logic of the mind and on the other is the eternal cry of the spirit for deliverance. The poem ends with acceptance and affirmation, the mystical wedding of body (including the mind) and soul, a sense of the peace which passes understanding, utterly credible and, at the last, confirmed with a quiet summation which might apply as much to the poet as to his dramatic persona.

Ironically, the closing line of this poem, with its emphasis on finality, was to be the last statement in book form that Roethke made in his lifetime. He continued to publish poems in the magazines, but died suddenly in late summer of 1963, leaving his latest poems uncollected. His widow put together these last poems for publication, and THE FAR FIELD, appearing posthumously, was awarded the National Book Award. It is sad and perhaps pointless to speculate where Roethke might have gone had he lived. We have the book and can celebrate what he had already done. THE FAR FIELD is his finest work, built on the solid foundation of all his earlier efforts. It is divided into four parts: "North American Sequence," "Love Poems," "Mixed Sequence", and "Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical." The most impressive single piece is the long "North American Sequence," his longest poem and most ambitious. Here, in a poem as grandly designed in its own way as Hart Crane’s THE BRIDGE, he goes a giant step beyond the liberty of "Meditations of an Old Woman" by meditating, as poet, upon the history and meaning of his country. To this meditation he brings Roethke the poet we know with all of himself and all the baggage and burden of himself in his encounter with the staggering fact, half-dreamed and half-realized, of America. Time and study will tell to what extent the poet succeeded, but meanwhile there are obvious glories to rejoice in, such as the variation on the epic catalogue which opens Part III of the section called "The Rose."

The poems in the other sections are variations on all the forms and subjects he had worked with, never more eloquently realized. Everything is recapitulated. "The Abyss" is a variation on the earlier psychic mode; the love poems sing and shine as always; a poem like "Song" is suddenly and effectively in the manner of OPEN HOUSE. With THE FAR FIELD we see, with an inner wince of pathos, another element of Roethke’s greatness: that nothing was ever lost. Perhaps he did go through stages, for all men do as they grow and learn and become; but few men manage to do so without rejecting what they were and have been. Part of our culture, the literary world places a premium on novelty. Roethke was able to come up with something new which neither offended nor isolated the old. His achievement was in part the result of the knowledge, intuitive and marvelous, which he had spent his life trying to communicate in our language and within the structure of poetry. This knowledge is at once nakedly simple and as indescribable as a veiled mystery (except in his poems), but he stated it all outright in the concluding lines of "Once More, The Round," saying that everything merges into the final unity, the "One," as we dance on and on and on.