Simile in "My Papa’s Waltz"

There is only one example of simile in the poem, so we should pay special attention to it. In line 3, the speaker hangs on “like death.” It is a complex and abstract simile whose meaning is neither obvious nor stable.

- line 3 - "But I hung on like death"
The simile must work in two ways: Death must be something that hangs on, and the speaker must see his or her younger self in terms of death. It is an unlikely simile: “Hangs on” means, roughly, “clings” in this context, but in what sense does death cling? A more obvious simile would be “like a burr” or “like a desperate man gripping a ledge.” The fact that Roethke chooses “death” makes us consider his purpose. Perhaps he introduces death to emphasize the danger of the situation or the darker side of the “waltz.” It also gives the child a power outside of human agency, which is the only way to have any power over the father. Death “hangs on” in the sense that it is permanent, and perhaps the child wants to freeze this moment for fear of what will happen if he or she lets go.

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

2). What does the simile evoke for you?

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