Word Order in "My Papas Waltz"
The poem is brief but carefully
controlled. Like a waltz, the words move us great strides
in one direction before swaying us back the other way,
and we are left emotionally exhausted by the end of the
poem, just as the speaker must have been physically exhausted
by the end of the waltz.
- line 2 - "small boy"
These two simple words can be read a couple of different
ways: Small boys are naive and seemingly innocent, but
they are also vulnerable. Small emphasizes relative
size rather than age, but Roethke could have used the
word young here without violating the meter. We
aren't sure how to feel about these words this early in
the poem, but the word death in the next line causes
us to rethink these lines. The fact that the poet says
death after rather than before small
boy leaves open the possibility for various interpretations
of the speakers age, at least temporarily.
- line 3 - "death"
Words like romped that seem pleasant or innocent
dominate the first part of the poem, while more sinister
words dominate the end. At the same time, we have the
word death in the first stanza and the comfort
of going to bed in the final stanza. The overall effect
is to sway the readers emotions violently, as in
a drunken waltz.
- line 10 - "battered"
This word, with its strong connotation of physical abuse,
would have altered the meaning of the early lines of the
poem if it had occurred there. The poet reserves it for
the poems latter half, when the tone has decidedly
- line 15 - "caked hard by dirt"
The dirtiness and hardness of the fathers hands
leave us feeling thoroughly unsettled. Because this image
dominates the final stanza, one would think that the poem
would end on a decidedly negative note, but it is balanced
by the comfort of the speakers going to bed. Although
the word order of the poem tends to move from lighthearted
words to more ominous ones like hard and dirt, the poem
is too ambiguous to let us pass judgment so easily.