Lines 1-2The first order of business in a poem is to establish situation and mood, and Roethke selects the fatherâ€™s drinking as the foremost fact to be conveyed. The tone is slightly comic, as the speaker suggests that there was enough alcohol on the fatherâ€™s breath to inebriate a child.
This observation implies that the father had consumed a substantial amount of whiskey, since the smell of it was very potent. These lines also establish a closeness between the two figures. The poem is a direct address from the son to the father, evoking a feeling of intimacy between them.
Line 3The sense of closeness is further emphasized in this line. Here it is physical closeness, as the child is said to have clutched onto his father. The description â€œlike deathâ€ introduces a note of fear or perhaps desperation. A grip â€œlike deathâ€ is extremely tenacious, indicating that the person holding on greatly fears the consequences of letting go. The figure is derived from a personification of death as someone who, once he has grasped onto a person, never lets go. The situation here, then, is quite complex. On the one hand, the boy was afraid of letting go of his father, perhaps fearing he would be hurt by his drunken careening.
Or perhaps he feared being separated from his father emotionally. He feared a loss of intimacy with his father if he let go, if he didnâ€™t participate in the dance. The dance thus serves as a metaphor for the overall relationship between father and son: intimate and vitally important for the boy, but also dizzying and anxiety provoking. On the other hand, the description of the boy hanging onto his father â€œlike deathâ€ also evokes the image of a death-figure clutching the man. This is particularly resonant if we consider that Roethkeâ€™s father died when Roethke himself was still a boy.Line 4This line contains the first mention, outside of the poemâ€™s title, of the waltz. This is the initial indication that the father and son were dancing.
Only after clearly establishing the complexity of the father-son relationship does Roethke provide the poemâ€™s circumstance, its central event. The meaning of the word â€œwaltz,â€ however, is ambiguous here. The waltz is a simple dance, not difficult to perform. In fact, the expression â€œto waltzâ€ means to do something effortlessly, as in, â€œThe team waltzed through to the finals.
â€ (This will be a secondary meaning of the word when it appears in line 15.) In this line, though, we are told that waltzing with the father was, paradoxically, difficult. What should have been easy was hard. On one level, this suggests that the fatherâ€™s inebriation made it a challenge for the boy to dance with him. This picture of a small boy trying to match steps with his drunken father is lightly comic.
On the metaphorical level of the dance as representing the entire father-son relationship, this line suggests that the relationship was difficult, that the boy found it hard to keep â€œin synchâ€ with his father. Or perhaps he felt that he could not â€” to use another figure of speech derived from dancing â€” â€œfollow his fatherâ€™s lead,â€ could not do what his father did, could not follow the example his father had set.Lines 5-6These two lines reveal the boisterousness of the dancing, which seems at odds with the grace of a waltz.
Increasingly, the use of the term â€œwaltzâ€ to describe the fatherâ€™s behavior seems ironic. The verb â€œrompedâ€ carries connotations of exuberance and unruliness, and the vigorousness of the dancing caused kitchen utensils to fall from the shelf. However, â€œrompedâ€ also suggests fun, playfulness, and â€” significantly â€” ease of achievement. In this sense, â€œrompâ€ is synonymous with â€œwaltz.â€ One could just as well say, â€œThe team romped through to the finalsâ€ as say they â€œwaltzed through.â€Lines: 7-8The mother is introduced into the scene as a rather aloof, disapproving figure. She did not engage in the dancing, and her frowning face indicates that was displeased by it.
Curiously, the speaker of the poem addresses the father directly (evoking, as we noted above, a feeling of intimacy), but he refers to the mother with the comparatively impersonal â€œMy mother.â€ Moreover, he refers not to her whole person but to just her face (â€œcountenanceâ€). This figure of speech in which a part is used to stand for the whole (as in â€œall hands on deck,â€ meaning the entire sailors, not just their hands) is called synecdoche. In a synecdoche, the essential aspects of the part is used to characterize the whole. In these lines, the essential.