Diction in "My Papa’s Waltz"

The poem is relatively brief, with clipped-sounding lines, and its language is for the most part reflective of a child’s vocabulary and thus a child’s perspective. Most of the words are monosyllabic, and if they are longer they are disyllabic, with one notable exception: the word countenance in line 7. The unusual diction in lines 6 and 7 stand out and give special weight to that section of the poem.

- line 4 - "was not easy"
This understated observation emphasizes that we are partially, even largely, in the mind of a child in this poem. There are more precise ways to describe the dance, but a child would probably not use a more sophisticated vocabulary.

- lines 7/8 - "My mother’s countenance / Could not unfrown itself."
These are unusual and arresting lines in terms of diction, and they signal a change in the poem. Not only is countenance a relatively unusual word for facial expression, but the idea that the countenance has control over itself is odd. Also, unfrown is a made-up word, albeit one whose meaning is clear enough. These lines give special emphasis to the speaker’s consciousness of his mother. She is not mentioned anywhere else in the poem, but her disapproval of this scene and her apparent inability to do anything about it except scowl intensify the danger of the situation. If there is something potentially tragic about the interaction between father and child, there is also an audience for the tragedy.

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

2). Find other parts of the poem in which diction is important. What do they contribute to the work?

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