Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”: Analysis

Subject: Literature
Pages: 2
Words: 725
Reading time:
3 min
Study level: College


Theodore Roethke’s My Papa’s Waltz is the author’s most famous poem, focusing on the dance performed by the adult man and the little boy. Four characters in My Papa’s Waltz are young Roethke as the speaker, the mother, the father, and his son. The poem’s opening line, “The whiskey on your breath,” gives readers a clear idea of the work’s main essence and nature (Roethke, 2011). Through the prism of this lyrical work, the poet demonstrates his inner experiences and feelings, remembering how he spent time with his dad. However, it should be noted that the presented situation has not such “positive patterns” — it is clear that the mother is not happy with the situation regarding dancing; she has a face that is frowning. In the kitchen, dishes “Slid from the kitchen shelf,” showing how this waltz is wild (Roethke, 2011). At the poem’s end, the father dances his son, about four years old, off to bed. My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke has a profound meaning and beauty in the syllable, which is why this short poem can make such a deep impression.


My Papa’s Waltz is a poem taking a reader back in time to demonstrate how some moments from a person’s past can look completely different when adequately reflected. This phenomenon is especially noticeable if one evaluates the speaker’s tone, the set of words used, and the waltz as a symbol. The tone is a mirror of the author’s inner world; it is especially vividly demonstrated by looking at words like death, easy, romped, and unfrown. Consequently, confusion and stupor are the aspects on which the narrator’s tone is built. In this case, Roethke appears in the image of a 4-year-old boy who does not understand the essence of what is happening. “The whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy” — the speaker could smell strong alcohol, which clouded his mind (Roethke, 2011). The poet sought to remind his audience that not every remembrance from childhood is fixed in memory, and sometimes, there are dark memories too.

The “unhappiness” of the situation is what the author seeks to demonstrate to the reader. However, this poem is not about violence but rather an incorrect upbringing and careless treatment of the boy. The father hits the boy with a “palm caked hard by dirt”; the man holds his wrist and dances so violently that the buckle scrapes the boy on the ear (Roethke, 2011). Indeed, none of the children would like this kind of attitude.

Moreover, the waltz has a special meaning in the poem. It can be defined as a ballroom dance, in moderately fast triple meter, in which the dancers revolve in perpetual circles, taking one step to each beat. It is known that this dance has its history, traditions, and strict rules. Traditionally, a man and a woman dressed in beautiful clothes had to participate in this dance. However, the presented plot only further emphasized the lack of rules and strict standards. “A palm caked hard by dirt” — the father is not dressed nicely; he is dirty and just got home from work (Roethke, 2011). It is quite evident that dirt and stale are unusual features for such a beautiful, elegant, and noble dance. It is assumed that this poem is about jealousy because the mother did not know how to dance, and she only had to look at the dancers.

In general, many words in the poem are essential, and most are easy to understand. For example, “my mother’s countenance” is one of the moments that is difficult to understand if it is not thoroughly analyzed (Roethke, 2011). Roethke used the word “countenance” to show that the mother was unhappy. The words paint a dark picture of this event, but sometimes the picture has glimmers of light. After all, the child is helpless, and his emotions and feelings are obvious when a native person beats him.


Summarizing the information mentioned above, it is essential to state that the poem is one of the multifaceted and unusual creations of the American poet. Despite its external simplicity, it combines a deep meaning, which can be understood only with a deep analysis. Moreover, Theodore Roethke used many literary techniques and methods to make the best impression on a reader and enhance the transmission of emotions.


Roethke, T. (2011). The collected poems of Theodore Roethke. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.