Any interpretation of "My Papa's Waltz" has to take into account the complexity of the speaker's feelings that are brought about by his father's waltz. A dance should bring two people closer together. The dance in this poem acts that way, yet the darker side of this waltz, which is a powerfully unsettling emotion under the surface of this poem, dominates the mood, and the love and intimacy of the dance do not make a strong impression on the reader.
Theodore Roethke manipulates our emotional response to the poem through a number of literary conventions, some of which play on the conventions of a waltz. Waltzes are not technically difficult dances, and they are set to lighthearted, easily accessible music. It is a dance in which couples sway back and forth as thy go round and round. Our emotions and sympathies go the same way in this poem: the speaker carefully orders his images to alternate frightening images with comforting images.
In the first stanza, for instance, the speaker begins with a frightening image: "The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy" (1-2). The second stanza begins with the words "We romped," undercutting the serious tone of the first stanza, yet their romping has consequences of the seriousness: Pans fall from the shelf, and the speaker's mother frowns in disapproval. This pattern is repeated throughout the poem, and the waltz spins fast and out of control until we can only focus on a whirling sequence of disturbing emotions rather than a coherent overall feeling.
Roethke uses meter and rhyme to underscore the fact that there is something "off" about this waltz. A waltz is a carefully ordered and technically precise musical form, and this poem mimics this form, but it also reveals moments of...