My Papa's Waltz
My Papa's Waltz
by Theodore Roethke
  • Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay
  • Dancing
  • Violence
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Violence

Symbol Analysis

Behind the joy of romping, and the father-son love in this poem, there's a hint of violence. While there is no indication of overt abuse, there are hints of violent tension throughout the poem which contrast strongly with our expectations of a waltz with dad.

  • Lines 1-2: There's no outright violence here, but these lines establish that Papa is drunk, which is a situation that can lead to violence.
  • Line 3: The speaker has slipped in the ultimate end to violence (or anything, really) – death. This line is an example of a simile, because the boy hung on "like" death. He's holding on to his father so hard that he's as inescapable as death. In what could be a happy poem about this father and son's relationship, we see death creep in to frighten us right from the start.
  • Lines 9-10: The father holds the son's hand to lead him in the dance but, because his knuckle is battered, this posture seems, if not violent, at least rough. "Battered" is an intense word to use for a knuckle, and implies some lurking violence.
  • Lines 11-12: The father doesn't seem like he's being violent intentionally here, but he's accidentally hurting his kid. Maybe the kid is too scared to speak up and say "ow" when his ear scrapes his dad's belt buckle. The belt also reminds us of how belts have often been used to punish children.
  • Line 13: The use of the word "beat" must be telling us something here, because you can "keep" time just as well as you can beat it, but "beat" carries a more violent connotation. "Beat" fits with the word "battered," which was used to describe the father's knuckles. Throughout this poem, subtle word choices create an undercurrent of violence.