Irony in "My Papa’s Waltz"

The first stanza introduces what is a heavily ironic tone that persists throughout the poem. A waltz sounds like a pleasant enough diversion, but the whiskey, the dizziness, and especially the word death collectively undercut this assumption and make us understand that the situation is not entirely lighthearted.

- lines 1-2 - "The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy"
These lines are ironic because, while it is possible that the smell of “the whiskey” alone would make the child dizzy, being swung roughly (and even drunkenly) about is probably to blame too.

- line 3 - "I hung on like death"
This line emphasizes the irony of line 4. Because the speaker’s father presents a certain danger, he “hangs on” to him here not necessarily “like death” but rather for dear life. The word death is thus ironic, but it makes the danger of the situation clear and offsets the notion that this is just a lighthearted waltz.

- line 4 - "Such waltzing was not easy"
The waltz should be easy, on a literal level, because the speaker is just being swung around by his father. It isn’t easy because, apparently, their lives together aren’t easy.

- lines 5-6 - "We romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf"
Continuing the tone of the first stanza, the word romped here is ironic because it makes the waltz sound carefree, yet the effect of this romping is to cause a violent, crashing disruption in their domestic world.

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

2). Find other examples of irony in the poem. What do they contribute to the work?

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