My Papa*s Waltz

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Working Complex Texts
A Sample Through the ELA Discipline
Papa’s Waltz
By Theodore Roethke
1
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
5
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
9
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
13
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
Alliteration occurs when the initial sounds of a word,
beginning either with a consonant or a vowel, are repeated in
close succession.
1
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
5
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
9
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
13
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
Alliteration in “My Papa’s Waltz”- Guided Thinking
- line 4 - "waltzing was"
The gentle sound of the repeated “w” contrasts with the striking simile
about death in line 3 and with the characterization of the waltz as “not
easy.” The alliteration makes the waltz sound natural and tranquil, but
there are clear indications to the contrary.
- lines 7/8 - "countenance / Could"
The sharp sound of the repeated “c” gives a hard edge to an otherwise
graceful-sounding stanza. The fact that this example of alliteration is
contained within a brief description of the speaker’s mother is a
warning, or signal of danger, like the same hard “c” in the parental
command “careful!”
- line 9 - "hand that held"
As in the first stanza, the gentle, nearly protective sound of this
alliteration, “hand . . . held,” is in sharp contrast with the battered
knuckle and scraped ear that dominate the imagery of this stanza. The
aggressive actions of the speaker’s father are at least partially offset by
this gentleness.
- lines 9/10 - "wrist/Was"
This is not an example of alliteration; alliteration is about sounds, not
just the first letters of consecutive words.
IRONY
• As a figure of speech, irony refers to a difference
between the way something appears and what is
actually true. Irony allows us to say something but to
mean something else, whether we are being
sarcastic, exaggerating, or understating.
– A woman might say to her husband ironically, "I never
know what you're going to say," when in fact she always
knows what he will say. The woman might simply say,
"Interesting," when her husband says something that
really isn't interesting.
This is sarcasm, which is one way to achieve irony. Irony is
generally more restrained than sarcasm, even though the
effect might be the same.
Irony in “My Papa’s Waltz”
• The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
A Guided Look at Irony in “My Papa’s Waltz”
• - lines 1-2 - "The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy"
These lines are ironic because, while it is possible that the smell of “the
whiskey” alone would make the child dizzy, being swung roughly (and even
drunkenly) about is probably to blame too.
• - line 3 - "I hung on like death"
This line emphasizes the irony of line 4. Because the speaker’s father
presents a certain danger, he “hangs on” to him here not necessarily “like
death” but rather for dear life. The word death is thus ironic, but it makes
the danger of the situation clear and offsets the notion that this is just a
lighthearted waltz.
• - line 4 - "Such waltzing was not easy"
The waltz should be easy, on a literal level, because the speaker is just
being swung around by his father. However it is not very easy, perhaps
because, their lives together are not easy.
• - lines 5-6 - "We romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf"
Continuing the tone of the first stanza, the word romped here is ironic
because it makes the waltz sound carefree, yet the effect of this romping
is to cause a violent, crashing commotion in their domestic world.
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