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Reader Response: My Papa’s Waltz

May 12, 2010 · 2 Comments · Poem Analysis, Reader Responses

In the poem My Papa’s Waltz, Theodore Roethke uses diction, rhyme scheme, and subtle metaphors to make a statement about child abuse. Since the speaker is a child, the diction of the poem is innocent, making it clear that the speaker does not know he’s being beaten. The lines “We romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf” indicates the speaker is being slammed so hard against the kitchen walls that the pans fall to the ground, but the speaker uses the word “romped”, which has a playful connotation, showing that the speaker simply considers it a game. The title itself, My Papa’s Waltz, displays the speaker’s ignorance: the child believes the violent abuse is simply a dance. The dance is referred to in the lines “At every step you missed / My right ear scraped a buckle”, where the reader picks up that the speaker is being whipped with a belt, but, once again, the speaker believes they are only dancing. The waltz is again mentioned in the line “Then waltzed me off to bed”, where it is implied that the speaker was beaten so hard he passed out, but the speaker equates passing out to sleep and being put to bed. The naivety of the speaker towards what is really going on gives the reader a very sickening feeling. This disconcerting effect is added to by the direct ABAB CDCD rhyme scheme of the poem; the simple rhymes add another layer to the  child-like tone of the piece, and the violation of this innocence by a violent alcoholic  father is horrifying to the reader. The metaphors hidden in the lines “But I hung on like death/ Such waltzing was not easy” and “Still clinging to your shirt” also add to the heartbreak the reader feels upon reading about the description of child abuse. The child is literally clinging to his/her father, but also metaphorically grasping for love, desperately hoping that they are not hated. Although the poem never explicitly states the child is being beaten, the reader picks up on the references even through the eyes of an oblivious child. The different elements of the poem create a meaning that gives the reader a renewed horror about child abuse.

2 Comments

  • miss harris

    Nisha,

    You are forcing meaning on this poem in places that it simply can’t be logically justified. For example, “romped” doesn’t just “have a playful connotation,” it means to play boisterously-see the literal. Also, how can you logically say a child is being beaten and whipped with a belt, but he just thinks he is dancing, or that he passes out, but that is just misread by the child as going to sleep. Do you REALLY believe child wouldn’t know when they are being abused??

  • melissavhs5

    I see your points, Nisha, but I saw the poem more literally. I feel like a child, no matter how young or innocent, would feel the pain of abuse and recognize it as wrong. They might still love their abuser, especially if its their parent, but I don’t think they would go so far as to call it a romp, which implies fun.

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