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My Papa's Waltz

My Papa's Waltz

by Theodore Roethke

Dancing

Symbol Analysis

In a poem called "My Papa's Waltz" we'd expect to see some dancing. But we think the better word for what's going on shows up in line 5 – this father and son pair is not really waltzing, but romping. Still, the poem maintains a steady, three beat per line waltz the whole way through. As you read, think about what this dance symbolizes in the relationship between the father and son – love, but also power and fear.

  • Line 4: The speaker is coming right out and telling us that he might not be having too much fun in this little dance. The waltz isn't easy for him, which is an understatement. If, as the line before shows, the boy has to hang on "like death," the waltz must be scary, not just "not easy." If we think of the waltz in the poem as an extended metaphor for the relationship between this father and his son, the son could be writing that his entire relationship with his father wasn't too easy.
  • Lines 5-6: Now we find out that this waltz is actually a romp – the pans are sliding from the shelf in the kitchen, and probably making quite a ruckus. Sounds like fun to us, but, remember, the waltz isn't easy for this little kid.
  • Lines 9-10: Dad keeps messing up and missing steps, scratching his kid in the process. This could be a metaphor for the father's mistakes in real life, which could hurt his kid in nonphysical ways as well.
  • Lines 15-16: This is apparently the last dance of the night, as it's the son's bedtime. But he doesn't want to let go of his father's shirt just yet. This image, father whisking the kid away to bed, shows that, no matter how tough the waltz was, this kid still loves his papa.

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