“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke and “Piano” by D.H. Lawrence are two poems in which grown men recall memories of their childhood. “My Papa’s Waltz” has a quietly sad, almost resigned tone as Roethke relives his nightly dances with his father as a young boy. Lawrence’s “Piano” is somewhat dreamy as a man is taken back by a song to his childhood. While both are presented to us through similar personas, striking differences are apparent throughout the two poems.
“My Papa’s Waltz” is the pensive recollection of a boy’s nightly waltz around the house in the arms of his father. Roethke’s poem gives a voice to the often silent internal conflict that the children of addicts struggle with. The sad resignation of the young boy is solidified early on in the poem. In the first stanza Roethke sets a tone of both pain and loyalty with the line, “But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy” (479). “My Papa’s Waltz” provides readers with the opportunity to see life through the eyes of the boy, dictated by his fathers drunken whims and his mother’s quiet resignation. The third stanza paints a picture of a small child’s careful admiration for his father as he recalls, “The hand that held my wrist Was battered on one knuckle” (479). And yet at the end of the stanza, we are shown just how defenseless the child is as his father drags him around the room, scraping his son’s ear with his belt buckle. Roethke makes the most important statement in the last line of his poem, “… waltzed me off to bed Still clinging to your shirt” (479). Clinging, and all that the word implies: fear, sadness, love and admiration, is both the greatest strength and obstacle the boy will encounter in his relationship with his father.
In contrast to “My Papa’s Waltz”, D. H. Lawrence’s “Piano” is a man’s remembrance of a happy childhood. Lawrence sets a dream-like tone in the first stanza of his poem as we are taken back through the years to a man’s boyhood. Taken back by a song, the man is transported back to the Sundays of his childhood where he would sit beneath the piano as his mother played hymns. While melancholy, Lawrence shows us that his persona yearns for the happy childhood he once had with the line, “The glamour Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past” (574). The author establishes a connection with readers through his use of music as a means of passage through time with the statement, “In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song Betrays me back,…” (574). Through this use of music and the persona’s bittersweet memories of a past childhood, Lawrence’s “Piano” relates itself to the reader.
“My Papa’s Waltz” and “Piano” are recollections of a grown man’s youth. The vast differences in each man’s upbringing points out the great differences in the human experience. “My Papa’s Waltz” is not only the tale of a child’s required romp around the house, but can also be seen as a representation of the young boy’s entire relationship with his addicted father. “Piano” on the other hand, is the contemplation of a happy childhood past too quickly.
Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X Day, and Robert Funk, 5th ed.
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice, 1999.
Lawrence, D.H. “Piano.” Literature and the Writing Process.
Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X day, and Robert Funk, 5th ed.
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice, 1999