Study Guide

My Papa's Waltz Admiration

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But I hung on like death: (line 3)

The boy in this poem tries really hard to hang on to his father, even though the whiskey on the man's breath probably doesn't smell too great, in addition to making the poor boy dizzy. Yet the boy hangs on like death. If we think of this poem in a biographical light, we know that Roethke's father died when he was only fifteen, acquainting young Roethke with the inevitability of death. When Roethke wrote this poem about his father, his father's death was still haunting his memory. He writes about trying to hang on like death, which took his father away from him.

My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself. (lines 7-8)

Even though the son isn't stopping the dance for his mother's sake, just the fact that he's noticing her unhappiness shows that he respects her. He knows in the back of his mind that he shouldn't be doing anything to make his mother upset, but loves dancing with his father so much – and is maybe so afraid of letting go – that he doesn't stop the dance to please his mom.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle; (lines 9-10)

It's impressive that a young boy would notice such a detail. His close attention may show that the boy admires his father's rough hands, and the man's corresponding rough work.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt, (lines 13-14)

We know that the time being beat is just for keeping time in the waltz, but this line also shows how children learn about time from their parents in general. They look up to their folks to tell them when to sleep and when to wake up, when to eat and when to play. In this case, we suspect that the time they get together before the father's death is slipping away.

Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt. (lines 15-16)

This little boy, like many little boys, doesn't want to go to bed. This shows that he's happy being up with his parents, no matter how rough this whiskey dance is. He loves his father so much that he tries to hang on to the man's clothing so that he won't leave him alone in bed.

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