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Literature offers insight into human relationships. Poems, in particular, may uncover deep and often unresolved struggles that one may have with a loved one. In Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” and Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”, the protagonists each have a troubled relationship with his father. It is evident that there is a central conflict between father and son, despite a genuine love for the former, which ultimately leads to an ironic response from the son.
Both narrators in “My Papa’s Waltz” and “Those Winter Sundays” appear to have a conflict with their father.
This can be seen in “My Papa’s Waltz” in that the narrator must cope with an apparent drunken father: “The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy”; (1-2). And when they waltz together, it is tragic, too, that the son must pay for his father’s mistakes: “At every step you missed / My right ear scraped a buckle.
” (Roethke 11-12). The title of the poem itself in using the word “My” in “My Papa’s Waltz” rather than “Our” symbolizes his father being intoxicated, in that the waltz is actually his own drunken walk.
The apparent agon is developed in to more than just a psychological struggle, in to what appears to be physical abuse: “The hand that held my wrist was battered on one knuckle” (Roethke 9-10).
Breaking this statement in to two parts and with no further explanation as to why the father’s knuckle is battered, it implies that not only does he hit his loved ones, he moreover shows no love; The father should be holding his son’s hand when they dance, yet he holds his wrist as if to say ‘let go of me’.
Having a troubled father is evident as well in the eyes of the narrator of “Those Winter Sundays,” when after working hard all week, his father comes home to an ungrateful family: Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made blanked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. (Hayden 1-5) There appears to be a conflict between members of the household, further illustrated by the statement which reveals there are “chronic angers of that house. ” (Hayden 9).
However, it is important to note that the narrator himself never once shows ingratitude for his father’s hard work – he refers to the tension of “that” house, and may not have been referring to himself in pointing out that “No one ever thanked him. ” (Hayden 5). Otherwise, he may have continued in the first person point of view and emphasized rather “I never thanked him. ” Regardless, there appears to be a struggle at hand for both narrators. Despite conflicts of the household and obvious troubled fathers, the sons of each poem still have a genuine love for their dads.
In “My Papa’s Waltz”, the son/narrator recognizes that his dad works hard for the family “with a palm caked hard by dirt” (14), and in turn wants to help his drinking problem. For this purpose, he dances with his dad willingly. He acknowledges his mother’s presence, yet chooses not to dance with her. And although he claims “Such waltzing was not easy” (Roethke 4), he “hung on like death” (Roethke 3) in fear of what may happen if he falls asleep – possibly, his father may drink again and physically abuse his mother.
It is not until the final stanza of “Those Winter Sundays” where the son, too, shows appreciation for his father’s hard work, and in effect, a genuine love for him. He firstly emphasizes the word “too” in line 1: “Sundays too my father got up early” to acknowledge the fact that not only did he work during the “blueblack cold” (Hayden 2) days of winter, but even on Sundays – a day reserved by most, to rest. Tone and order in this stanza are particularly important to demonstrate the son’s love: Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices? (Hayden 10-14) Naturally, if he had still wanted to show hatred toward his father, he would have put line two and line three of this stanza before line one, as if to say even though his father did good deeds, he still spoke cruelly to him. And although this one insensitive gesture of “speaking indifferently to him” is made known, the tone is immediately changed (as a sort of bildungsroman) to that of regret, shown by repetition (verse 13) in his look back at the way he treated his father.
In truth, the narrator repeatedly acknowledges his father’s hard work, an irrefutable sign of love for him. Yet it is only the fear of that angry household mentioned earlier, which makes him act hostile toward his father. Both narrators seemingly love their father, yet their behavior ironically shows otherwise. An incongruity between expectation and reality is present in both poems. The son in “My Papa’s Waltz” speaks of an alcoholic and domineering father.
The latter is ascertaining when the boy says: “My mother’s countenance could not unfrown itself. ” (Roethke 7-8). Using the words “could not” as opposed to “did not” explains a certain predicament the mother holds against her spouse – that she has no choice but to show a distressing face and likely has no control over the unpleasant situation of the kitchen rumble. It seems the case that a small child would be fearful of this type of father figure, and consequently run away or repress from the burdens of a not-so-ideal relationship.
However, he does just the opposite as he explains whilst his father brings him to bed, “(I was) Still clinging to your shirt. ” (Roethke 16). Whereas the final line of this poem is the quite shocking denouement and petty resolution to a seemingly continuous agon, the conflict is resolved in “Those Winter Sundays”, yet not withstanding irony. Expectation holds that when a son realizes the warmth (figuratively and literally, in this case) his father brings, he will show sincere gratitude.
Yet the reality of this case reveals that even while having a transparent love for his father, a negative demeanor is displayed. In the same way, the statement, “When the rooms were warm, he’d call, / and slowly I would rise and dress” (Hayden 7-8) further illustrates paradoxical behavior; obviously there is the realization that a warm room had derived from his father’s hard work to set the fire ablaze. Still, the son shows no thanks by “slowly” responding to this kind gesture.
It is not until after over three-quarters of the narrative is through does the author show remorse for his actions. He realizes he should have firstly overcome the disapproval that would have came from his family, and secondly, shown the love to his father that he truthfully felt as expected, rather than act antagonistic. The narrator of “My Papa’s Waltz” shows love toward an incompetent father, whereas the narrator of “Those Winter Sundays” shows a lack of appreciation to a hardworking father.
In both Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” and Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” the narrators must each cope with a conflict with his father, and in spite of a sincere love for him, the son behaves ironically toward his parent as a result of this conflict. Just like these authors, many people are faced with family ordeals. The manner in which they are overcome, however, depends both on the weight of the problem at hand, and the internal strength of the person who chooses to manage such tribulations.