In Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s waltz” the reader finds a horrid experience, the beating of a child by his father, which is told in a way of a romantic and beautiful dance – the waltz. The feeling one gets from reading this poem is that the narrator, at least at the time in which the poem is written, does not look at this experience as something bad.

He tries to beautify the experience by making it a waltz. He also, by means of images and rhythm, shows the conflict between the readers, or the way any other ‘normal’ man will look at this experience, and how he sees it, or wants it to be seen ( although he does not show his father as completely innocent). It can also be looked upon as the Petty Herst syndrome – meaning having a ‘reality’ so intense and strong that one feels incapable of any other ‘reality’, fearing it can and will be worse.

The poem is built of four stanzas (quatrain), each consisting of four lines. The rhyme scheme is, in the first stanza – abab, in the second – cdcd, in the third – efef, and in the fourth – ghgh. The meter is tercet iambic (stressed unstressed – three times per line).

The central image in the poem is the metaphor in which the beatings are described as a waltz. The poet is led around the house, dancing – not beaten around. This is also brought through by the meter – tercet iambic – the beat of the waltz, thus the main image is shown through the meter as well, giving the reader more of the feeling of dance in contrast to the ‘secondary images’ which are more associated with the rough experience of a beating.

Given such parameters the poet installs some sort of relaxation in the reader (maybe even in himself), in order to make the subject – the beating – more readable, and lessening the effect of the drunkenness and the beatings, making his father more human.

By this dance metaphor, the whole routine of the beating is messaged. The drunken father, his breath “Could make a small boy dizzy”, yet the boy hangs “on like death”. The word death is important, usually, the word death, in love poems, shows truthfulness and undesputable love, as in marriage one promises to love to death, to never leave even if what is left is just a memory – as happens in this poem.

The boy will love his father to end; although, a great bitterness remains in the memory – the drunkenness, failure (“every step you missed”), and the beating deriving from these failures and drunkenness. For each failure ” My right ear scraped a buckle ” – The boy is accused of his father’s failures.

Another way in which the love to the father is shown is the way in which the father is described, by which the poet shows his love to the father, and his longing for him is by calling him “Papa” – not father. This word is used, often, to fathers who have a special relationship.

The title in itself is misleading, reading “My Papa’s waltz” one will expect to find a poem about a father, good and loving, dancing this gentle dance, not, in one’s eye not the poet, a beating father, a monster. Together with all these is the description of the father as a poor man, one to be married.

He is, as we have already seen, a failure, he is drunken, probably a lot, for his breath reeks with ” whiskey “, he is dirty – his hands ” caked hard by dirt ” and are ” battered on one knuckle” , all in all, a poor man that all will pity, someone who needs love.

In spite of these showings of his father as a person that he loved, and still does, the poet uses the ‘secondary images’ – the images outside the main image – to show that the brutality existed. He does not lessen the impact of these beatings or their brutality. The beatings were so hard that the “pans \ Slid from the kitchen shelf “, the beatings were hard on the poet – ” Such waltzing was not easy ” – and also made a change in the boy’s point of life.

The poet tells that the father beats ” time on my head “, meaning the beatings made his childhood go away, time ran faster for him, beating him as his father did, as if making him mature faster than others, but he does not accuse his father of that. One accusing finger does rise, and that is toward the mother, who “Could not unfrown ” her ” countenance “, as if the poet’s mother does not react in order to maintain this or that frown that will leave her ‘undignified’, as if stopping his father from beating him is not of her duties –  putting the blame away from his father.

Another explanation, farfetched as it may sound, is that of the Petty Herst syndrome. The meaning of this syndrome is that one may enter into a state of life, a ‘reality’, that no matter how brutal or harsh it may be, once it is in his mind as an absolute reality, this reality will look like the most suitable reality, escape is not needed, and even when the person leaves this reality it will still, in retrospective, be the best situation he was ever been.

It is possible that the narrator in this poem is ‘afflicted’ by this syndrome. He defends his father because to him it seems that this is the reality he should be in. He describes the beatings as a waltz because he sees it as such.

Although the poem is narrated retrospectively, from a grown-up man’s point of view, something remains, the poet does not hate his father for the beating, on the contrary, he shows us that the love to his father is not, and never was lost. And twice during the poem – he talks about ” But I hung on ” in the first stanza, and ” Still clinging to your shirt.” in the fourth stanza, which gives the feeling that he loved and stayed with his father during his childhood, and that he does that even now when his childhood is no longer with him.

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0


  1. There is absolutely no evidence in this poem to show that the subject matter could be called a “beating”. No doubt, this poem is about an intoxicated father making an ill-advised attempt to bond with his son, but a “beating” implies violence, anger and intent. Poor choice of wording and ultimately discredits the rest of this analysis.

  2. This analysis is horrible off the mark. Do not read this from a “politically correct” 21st century perspective. Otto Roethke, the author’s father, owned a greenhouse- hence the dirt and the battered hand. He was not beating his son in this poem.

    The mother watched as her house is used for “rough-housing” by father and son. She is not a mute witness to child abuse.

    Perhaps the father drank too much. There is room for interpretation here.

    This is a story of the complex relationship between father an son. A relationship of love, reverence, and fear. The kind of fear that was once part of the father/son relationship.

    Examining Roethke’s work as a whole can also avoid dismissing this poem as a poem about child abuse.

    • As all things written it can be interpreted depending on your mind set as you read it. Some people I know will see it as a poem about abuse. I see it both ways, completely depends on the mood you are in while reading.

      • TD’s response is both accurate and precise.

        It is not about abuse, for all the reasons stated. Focus in on the connections between “hung on” (3) and “clinging” (16) with their positive connotations. Also, “[w]e romped” doesn’t just imply playfulness, it is the actual definition. Claiming it doesn’t or stating that it’s used ironically is not supported by the reactions of the mother (frowning) or the rest of the poem. Finally, it doesn’t depend “on your mind set” or mood when you’re reading it. There are wrong answers in interpretation. Not everything is about how you feel.

        • Interpreting literature has everything to do with how you feel! That’s the entire point of doing it, all forms of literature can be interpreted 1 million different ways and unless something is factually inaccurate there’d no right or wrong way of doing it. Theodore Roethke didn’t leave behind an answer key on exactly what the figurative language in “My Papa’s Waltz” meant so it could very well being about abuse for all we know. Quit Acting like you knew the author personally and know exactly how he wants people to interpret the poem

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