As we waltz through Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” and attempt to grasp its true meaning, or merely sum up a valid understanding of our own, we cannot ignore the help we receive from the visuals provided in the poem by Roethke. The lines that assist the reader with developing an image of what is actually occurring include words such as whiskey, dizzy, death, and waltzing or waltzed. These nouns and verbs all provide a fruitful image of what the characters in “My Papa’s Waltz” are doing and why they are doing it; however, the images that are provided with these words may not easily allow for one to construe the real intention of the author.
Specifically, in the poem there are a few contrasting lines that may seem misleading when trying to decipher the intended meaning of it. When Roethke writes, “Such waltzing was not easy,” the reader may get the idea that the father and son in the poem are just being playful and attempting to waltz. In that same stanza, however, whiskey is mentioned which can lead the reader in two opposite directions based on their personal background and opinions regarding alcohol. If the reader views alcohol as being used to have an enjoyable time rather than abused, then the positive tone of the poem is maintained; however, if alcohol is affiliated with alcoholism and abuse, then the images and interpretations are more likely developed under a negative light. A couple of other lines that may cause differing interpretations are lines seven and eight when Roethke writes, “My mother’s countenance/Could not unfrown itself.” One may take this to either mean that the mother is looking at her husband and son with a frown displaying happiness or a frown that portrays sadness and worry. The latter type of frown may provide one with an understanding that the family is dysfunctional and far from perfect. Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” is open for interpretation that is supported by the emotions of the reader when reading it, and it is also immensely influenced by the diction chosen by Roethke.
The diction used by Roethke is important, especially to the interpretation that the father and son have a loving and caring relationship. Roethke uses slant and exact rhymes in every other line in all four of his stanzas to help create a rhythm. This rhythm almost acts as background music for the waltzing father and son. As one reads through the poem, they notice the rhymes and syllables coalescing to form this musical rhythm; however, this rhythm may be overshadowed by real music provided when the poem is read or recited. The real music being played will provide a stronger emotional response to the poem. For example, if one reads this poem with sorrowful music playing, such as the instrumental playing in the first couple of minutes of the video below, they would most probably conclude that the father is abusive towards his son.Another example would be if one reads the poem with music of a lighter tone playing in the background, such as in the video below. This would lead one to assume that the father and son have a great loving relationship with one another.
It is quite interesting that these completely external factors can have such outstanding impact on the interpretation and meaning one extracts from a poem. Of course, one must remember that these external factors are heavily complemented by the formal elements of the poem itself. Both the external factors and the formal elements described just demonstrate the beautiful subjective quality of such art. In this poem it is safe to state that Roethke intentionally allowed for multiple interpretations of his poem through his diction and visual images provided through his descriptive words.
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