Symbol in "My Papa’s Waltz"

The central symbol of the poem is the waltz itself. It is described as a waltz (as a noun) only in the title; it is a verb when it appears in the poem. On the literal level, the father is doing a kind of dance with his child, but the fact that it is a waltz probably says something about the way they interact when they aren’t “waltzing.” The fact that the title is written in the singular possessive case—“my Papa’s waltz” as opposed to “our waltz”—emphasizes the control implicit in the symbol.

- line 4 - "Such waltzing was not easy"
As dances go, a waltz is not that complicated or technically difficult. It is more like the foxtrot than the tango. Someone must lead in a waltz, which underscores the father’s dominance over his child. It is not the fact that the child is being led, but instead the way the father is leading that makes the dance “not easy.”

- line 15 - "Then waltzed me off to bed"
This last line complicates any easy interpretation of Roethke’s poem. The use of waltz as a figure of speech invites us to interpret the father’s waltz as a symbol (the child is being waltzed, figuratively and literally, to bed). The poem indicates early on that the waltz is not easy, and yet it ends with the comfort and stability of bed.

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

2). Do you think the waltz is ultimately a positive symbol? a negative symbol?

Bedford/St. Martin's | Order a Book | Instructor Registration | Contact Us | Contact Your Sales Representative