Walter McDonald’s “Life With Father” and Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” both offer extraordinary insight into the behaviors and lifestyles of two different families living and dealing with alcoholic fathers. Alcoholism permeates throughout each of these poems and becomes the defining factor in the lives of the children associated with both “Life With Father” and “My Papa’s Waltz.
” Surprisingly however, neither Walter McDonald nor Theodore Roethke uses the seemingly omnipotent alcoholic father figure as a focal point of antagonism, frustration, abhorrence, or hate but instead both poets highlight the love, affection, fondness and respect that the children have for their fathers no matter what, in their respective poems.
Walter McDonald and Theodore Roethke both use vivid figurative language and sound devices in similar and different ways in their poems to express their shared theme: that, even amidst the cruelty and brutality of alcoholism in the home, feelings of love, affection and respect persevere in the minds of those who are most affected, and here it is the children. McDonald and Roethke use dramatic imagery not only to create visual effects that complement their common theme but uses it also to convey abstract ideas and concepts that would have been very difficult or even impossible to express in literal terms.
Theodore Roethke in “My Papa’s Waltz” openly shows his imagery as two-fold: one of systematic child-abuse by an alcoholic father and the other of a hard-working man who danced awkwardly yet enthusiastically and thus creating a moment of intimacy with his child. The father and son each represent two different roles: idol and aggressor, admirer and victim. Roethke seems to illustrate a fond moment between father and son by affectionately describing a “romp” around the kitchen between a hard-working father who has “battered …
knuckles” and “a palm caked hard by dirt” and a son who knows this waltz isn’t “easy” but continues to “cling” to his father’s “shirt” lovingly. Roethke adds another dimension to the poem by also depicting the discord and disharmony present during the “waltz. ” Roethke’s use of the word “beat,” is a possible indication of abuse, and the fact that the child is held still by a hand itself “battered” which seems to imply a sense of manual violence. The mother’s stance also contributes to this interpretation.
She is guilty of not restraining her husband as she looks on with a “countenance [that] / Could not unfrown itself. ” Her stern disapproval of what was going on seems to be further evidence that the father was acting inappropriately with his child. In fact, the relationship between the mother and the father in this poem reveals exactly the dynamic that we understand as typical of abusive family situations: the ambivalence of one parent, in effect permits the other to perpetuate abuse on the children.
It can also be claimed that the child although not openly protesting, doesn’t appear to be enjoying himself in all of this. Roethke describes the “waltz” as requiring the child to hang on “like death,” this hardly is a positive description of something a little boy would welcome. Finally, Roethke emphasizes the father’s drunkenness by drawing our attention to the “whiskey” on the father’s breath as the very first detail we learn about him and his waltz.
This duality seems to show that despite the mayhem and chaos brought upon by the “waltz” it however still remains a well-remembered affectionate moment and the child’s love and admiration for his father is clearly seen even if the poem suggests an abusive situation. In a like manner, Walter McDonald’s use of imagery visualizes and humanizes not only the fear of the children but also their undying devotion and respect for their father. Similarly to “My Papa’s Waltz,” McDonald in “Life With Father” emphasizes the presence and importance of alcohol by even highlighting the “whisky” in their father’s “snoring.
” Alcohol seems to be like an angry cloud shadowing the entire poem. There is a sense of duality in McDonald’s imagery as he contrasts the lives seen in the “Sunday funnies” and the actual lives of the children. “Fear” seems to be the only word that describes the domestic life in the poem. The children here have to constantly “hide” and “creep softly” trying not wanting to wake the sleeping giant from his “stupor” as they fear his “fierce [ness]. ” In direct contrast, in “the Sunday funnies” the children see “Dagwood / bumbling about insanely sober” and “Wash Tubbs with twins / he doted over.
” Sadly it seems that the children have so rarely seen their father sober that they describe it as “insane” and “bumbling. ” A loving parent usually dotes on their children, and in the absence of this, McDonald adds a sense of jealously and wanting. Walter McDonald shows through imagery how the children have sadly grown accustomed to their father’s lifestyle even though they continue to live in constant fear of him. Fear however here does not translate into animosity or enmity but instead feelings of respect and possibly love are strangely discernible.