It would be true to say that poetry based on childhood reminiscences always sounds genuinely intimate and gentle. The analyzed poems by Roethke and Hayden are no exception; however each of them has its own range of feelings. Both of them are nostalgic, but while Roethke’s poem is full of warmness towards the father mixed with pain, Hayden’s one reveals the guilt that an adult poet feels towards his father.
The poem “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke was written in 1940s and refers to the biography of the author. It describes the author’s memories the father who has come home late after hard physical work and drinking some alcohol, and is playing with the child by jokingly dancing with him. Starting from the first stanza it is clear that the feelings of the boy towards his father are controversial:
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy (1-4).
The relationships between the father and the son
There is an implication of fear in these lines which are caused by the fact that the father is drunk and is able to drop him while dancing with him. There is a suggestion that the relationship between the father and the son are painful because the boy is hurt in the process of this clumsy dancing:
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle (11-12)
These lines reveal the idea that love and pain are mixed in any relationship, including that between parents and children. The author also suggests that this pain is not intentional and is caused as a result of awkward steps. This pain is a metaphor for the emotional suffering that people have due to unintended actions of their close people. However, the poem suggests that the boy loves his father as he is despite his imperfection.
It is worth saying that despite being painful, the attachment between the father and the son is very close in Roethke’s poem, whereas it seems different about Hayden’s one. The poet describes his father as a very lonely person who is alienated from his family. The point of view of the poem is that of an adult person who looks differently at the childhood events. He is sorry and guilty about his past attitude to his father:
I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold (8-11)
The above lines suggest that because of “chronic angers of that house” which probably refers to quarrels between the parents, the boy keeps away from his father. There is no feeling of attachment and compassion between them, and the child speaks indifferently to him. In the poem there is a contrast between his past attitude to his father and the attitude years after the described events. It looks like years of his own experience with people has made the author more tolerant to people and more compassionate.
The atmosphere of destruction and decay in the poem
There is a number of words that have negative connotation, such as austere, lonely, cracked, ached, splintering, breaking. The word “cold” is repeated three times throughout the poem, which underlines the dominating mood of it. The main character of the poem feels guilty and sorry for his father by saying: “No one ever thanked him” (5). An interesting metaphor is about the father warming up the rooms, probably by making a fire. At the same time he is described as the one “who had driven out the cold”. This means that while the father wants to be closer to his family members, his efforts are not success.
In “My Papa’s Waltz”, a complex mixture of love and pain evokes controversial feelings in the reader. The father is not sober but he loves his son and tries to express his affection by waltzing with him. The mother frowns, the readers can only guess why. Probably, she is not happy that he has returned home late instead of coming earlier and spending time with his family. At the same time, she does not interfere with the play because she realizes that the child misses his father who works hard and spends days away from him. It is clear that the son lacks communication with him, though he is scared of his state. The last stanza reveals this controversy:
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt (13-16).
The above lines suggests that the father returned home and without washing hands after the hard physical labor that he had during the day, started playing with the child. Beating rhyme on the boys head sounds not adequate to the boy, however this is more of a play and it appears to be a joke. The last lines reveal that the boy is happy to be with his father in spite of his clumsy behavior; “still clinging to your shirt” suggests that he misses his father and expresses his affection to him in this way.
Thus, as can be seen from Roethke’s poem, close relation between the father and the son is revealed through the physical contact, dancing, playing, hugging each other. None of that is mentioned in Hayden’s poem, which reveals alienation between the two people. In “Those Winter Sundays” the poet expresses the feeling of guilt because of his being cold to his father in his childhood. In contrast, “My Papa’s Waltz” is a revelation of nostalgia for warm relations with the father even though he is far from being perfect.