“My Papa’s Waltz” is one of the most famous poems by Theodor Roethke. Four stanzas conceal the complex content of the child’s impressions of his father. “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath is a much longer and more controversial poem representing grief and hatred for the deceased parent. Both poems are similar in their theme of an ambiguous relationship with the father, but they differ in how the theme is revealed and in tone.
Shared Topics, Themes, and Literary Devices
Both poems are equally disturbing in their content and reveal the same theme – the relationship between the child and the parent. “My Papa’s Waltz” is a childlike mix of fun and menace. The child is both afraid of the father’s strength and looks forward to the upcoming fun. The lyrical hero of the poem does not feel safe; he “hangs on like death” (Roethke 1). The father’s figure is all-encompassing and omnipotent; the child still clings to his father’s shirt at the end of the poem.
Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy” is also contradictory and disturbing, revealing a whole range of a child’s emotions from the relationship with the father. The poet begins by “doing no more,” referring to the fact that the character feels like a foot that has been living in black shoes for the last thirty years or so (Plath 1). She calls the father ‘Dad’ and insists that she should have killed him, but he passed away before she did. When the lyrical heroine remembers her dad, she recalls that he was standing at the blackboard and recalls his cleft chin, hinting at a reminiscence of the devil. The poet concludes her long poem with a farewell to her father, which depicts bittersweet touches of anguish, love, and despair. The looming figure of the orator’s father was to her a symbol of oppression, male superiority, and fascist control, whose death she had finally come to terms with.
Both poems are very similar in creating an atmosphere of anxiety and childish rejection of what is happening in the relationship with the father. Roethke creates a dangerous picture of the life of a child who does not yet understand the danger he is in. The heroine of Plath feels threatened even after her father’s death (Abbas 14). Both poems reveal the abnormal and unhealthy relationship established between a parent and a child. To illustrate their impressions, both poets use deep metaphors, such as the comparison of the child’s posture and death in Roethke and the allusion to paternal cruelty to the brutality of the Nazis in Plath. Moreover, it becomes evident that, despite the terrible attitude of fathers towards their children, in both poems, children consider the father’s figure to be significant and beloved.
Roethke’s and Plath’s poems differ in tone despite similar themes and motifs. “Daddy” sounds much more disturbing thanks to its constant allusions to the Holocaust and the horrors of Nazi treatment of prisoners. Her association with Holocaust survivors has always been a problem for critics and readers of her poetry (Abbas 13). Despite the gloom of Roethke’s theme, his poem gives hope for a resolution of the situation, mainly due to the presence of the figure of the mother. Poems also differ in the position of perception of current events. Roethke captures the child’s emotions, vividly and contradictory; he does not see the whole picture and does not analyze it. The heroine Plath stands above the events; she is both an abused child and an adult girl mourning the death of a parent.
Literary Elements Emphasizing the Themes
My Papa’s Waltz
The inconsistency of the relationship between a father and a child in Roethke’s poem is emphasized by the ambiguity of the scenes, and the vocabulary used. Darkness and uncertainty capture the space of the poetic text, which is light and playful at first glance. The primary device of the poem “My Papa’s Waltz” is the assonance in the lines “My mother’s countenance/Could not unfrown itself” (Roethke 1). When the last consonants coincide, symmetry is found in words like breath/death and regiment/itself. The assonance illustrates the seriousness of the situation as the father circles the son’s room.
Enjambment occurs in every stanza; the poem has a regular and complete rhyme scheme, except for the first line. The poem is about a dance with a regular patterned rhythm, and closing each stanza with a rhyme helps to imagine a fixed pattern of movement. The poem uses the words “buckle” and “dirt” as too coarse and uncharacteristic in a poetic context (Roethke 1). Anxiety and suspense are triggered when reading this poem because the rhythm and ambiguity are preserved from line to line. This dance has a hint of desperation and fear, carried by short lines enclosed in a light rhyme.
Plath’s poem may seem chaotic and disorganized at first glance, but it is not. The poem does not have a strict rhyme and is written in free verse, periodically resembling tonic verse. Some of the lines are intermittently broken, which creates an additional effect of tension, and deliberately shortened sentences serve the same purpose. Plath works excellently with the sound component of the verse; consonant words appear many times throughout the text: foot/root/boot. The intentional rejection of exclamations, even where they are entirely appropriate, is also noteworthy. This technique emphasizes the coldness and detachment of the father. The motif of a childish impression is reinforced by the repetitive use of vocabulary characteristic of young children, “achoo,” and “chuffing” (Plath 1). The feeling of ambiguity and duality is enhanced by complex associative series, a finger, a kick with a boot, German speech, and an allusion to the devil. The inclusion of German words emphasizes the controversial comparison of her father with the Nazis, while Plath compares herself with the Jews. The poem freely intertwines elements from the father’s biography, memories of the formalized relationship between father and daughter, and bizarre mystical images.
The poems of Theodore Roethke and Sylvia Plath are in many ways similar, revealing the theme of the complex relationship of children with their fathers. Both texts are permeated with a gloomy and disturbing atmosphere. However, the poems also have significant differences; they mainly relate to the tonality and the methods used to reveal the topic. Roethke’s poem is dynamic and concise, created in a precise rhythm, reminiscent of the waltz. Plath’s “Daddy” does not have a clear structure and is written in free verse, with truncated phrases. Both authors use a wide range of literary devices to deal with a complex topic, including sound arrangements, metaphors, and similes.
Abbas, S. Z. “Sylvia Plath, the Well-Bred Malaise, and its Confession in ‘Daddy’.” Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities2, vol.11, no. 3, 2019.
Plath, Sylvia. “Daddy” in Collected Poems. Estate of Sylvia Plath, 1992.
Roethke, Theodore. “My Papa’s Waltz” in Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. Heast Magazines, 1961.