“My Papa’s Waltz,” a 1948 poem by the American writer Theodore Roethke, explores themes of familial conflict, abuse, and intergenerational masculinity through descriptions of a father and son dancing. The poem was published in 1942, but also appeared in Roethke’s 1948 collection titled The Lost Son and Other Poems. Since then, it has become one of the most anthologized American poems of the 20th century, as well as one of the most frequently studied and taught.
Composed of four quatrains written in iambic pentameter with an ABAB rhyme scheme, the poem is in many ways deceptively simple. Its meter makes it highly readable, imitative of nursery rhymes or ballads, while its diction is vivid and accessible. The poem's complexity lies in the ambiguity it conveys. According to a highly literal interpretation, the scene described in the poem is one of lighthearted play. However, Roethke seeds numerous hints that the dynamic between the father and son is tense or even abusive. Details taken in their full context hint that the father is an alcoholic, and that what seems like energetic roughhousing is in fact frightening violence.
Though much about the speaker's life is left ambiguous, in part to reflect the speaker's frightened hyper-focus on immediate sensory detail, it is likely that "My Papa's Waltz" is at least somewhat autobiographical, inspired by Roethke's own conflicted relationship with his father.