Alliteration in "My Papa’s Waltz"

There is a single, clear alliterative moment in each of the first three stanzas of the poem. The fact that there is no alliteration in the final stanza encourages the overall impression that there is something not completely right within the poem.

- line 4 - "waltzing was"
The gentle sound of the repeated “w” contrasts with the striking simile about death in line 3 and with the characterization of the waltz as “not easy.” The alliteration makes the waltz sound natural and tranquil, but there are clear indications to the contrary.

- lines 7/8 - "countenance / Could"
The sharp sound of the repeated “c” gives a hard edge to an otherwise graceful-sounding stanza. The fact that this example of alliteration is contained within a brief description of the speaker’s mother is a warning, or signal of danger, like the same hard “c” in the parental command “careful!”

- line 9 - "hand that held"
As in the first stanza, the gentle, nearly protective sound of this alliteration, “hand . . . held,” is in sharp contrast with the battered knuckle and scraped ear that dominate the imagery of this stanza. The aggressive actions of the speaker’s father are at least partially offset by this gentleness.

- lines 9/10 - "wrist/Was"
This is not an example of alliteration; alliteration is about sounds, not just the first letters of consecutive words.

Questions for response
1). How does this examination of alliteration change your understanding of how the poem works as a whole?

2). How else does Roethke manipulate sound in the poem? Can you find instances of assonance, for example?

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