Word Order in "My Papa’s 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 speaker’s 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 reader’s 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 poem’s latter half, when the tone has decidedly changed.

- line 15 - "caked hard by dirt"
The dirtiness and hardness of the father’s 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 speaker’s 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.

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

2). Find other places in the poem in which word order is important. What is the effect of the word order on the work?

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