My Papa's Waltz


Commentary by Earl Gosnell

Poet Laureate of Longfellow, Colorado

Earl the Pearl's Excellent Operating Ham Radio Club (EPOCH), official newsletter
Until we find someone to devote more time to it, we shall rehash and update an old letter regarding a poem's content that nevertheless should prove of interest to the amateur radio op.
There follows an intense examination of the meaning of Theodore Roethke's delightful poem My Papa's Waltz. My approach is not the usual one, so I shall justify it with an excerpt from Walker Percy's essay "The Loss of Creature."1
A young Falkland Islander walking along a beach and spying a dead dogfish and going to work on it with his jackknife has, in a fashion wholly unprovided in modern educational theory, a great advantage over the Scarsdale high-school pupil who finds the dogfish on his laboratory desk. Similarly the citizen of Huxley's Brave New World who stumbles across a volume of Shakespeare in some vine-grown ruins and squats on a potsherd to read it is in a fairer way of getting at a sonnet than the Harvard sophomore taking English Poetry II.

The educator whose business it is to teach students biology or poetry is unaware of a whole ensemble of relations which exist between the student and the dogfish and between the student and the Shakespeare sonnet. To put it bluntly: A student who has the desire to get at a dogfish or a Shakespeare sonnet may have the greatest difficulty in salvaging the creature itself from the educational package in which it is presented. The great difficulty is that he is not aware that there is a difficulty; surely, he thinks, in such a fine classroom, with such a fine textbook, the sonnet must come across! What's wrong with me?

The sonnet and the dogfish are obscured by two different processes. The sonnet is obscured by the symbolic package which is formulated not by the sonnet itself but by the media through which the sonnet is transmitted, the media which the educators believe for some reason to be transparent. The new textbook, the type, the smell of the page, the classroom, the aluminum windows and the winter sky, the personality of Miss Hawkins—these media which are supposed to transmit the sonnet may only succeed in transmitting themselves. It is only the hardiest and cleverest of students who can salvage the sonnet from this many-tissued package. It is only the rarest student who knows that the sonnet must be salvaged from the package.

One might object, pointing out that Huxley's citizen reading his sonnet in the ruins and the Falkland Islander looking at his dogfish on the beach also receive them in a certain package. Yes, but the difference lies in the fundamental placement of the student in the world, a placement which makes it impossible to extract the thing from the package. The pupil at Scarsdale High sees himself placed as a consumer receiving an experience-package; but the Falkland Islander exploring his dogfish is a person exercising the sovereign right of a person in his lordship and mastery of creation. He too could use an instructor and a book and a technique, but he would use them as subordinates, just as he uses his jackknife. The biology student does not use his scalpel as an instrument; he uses it as a magic wand! Since it is a "scientific instrument," it should do "scientific things."

I am reviewing "My Papa's Waltz" not as someone part of an educational system but as a newspaper reader who discovered that a student at a local community college was honored by having her "child abuse" interpretation of the poem included in a poetry anthology. Not wanting my town associated with a "magic wand" interpretation, I wrote two letters to the book's editor and one to the instructor of the class. Receiving no reply from either, I simply posted my letters on the web.

My site has since been visited by that "rarest student who knows that the sonnet must be salvaged from the package," wanting better understanding of the poem than he was getting in class, so I have expanded this second letter now analyzing the poem more in depth for the benefit of "the hardiest and cleverest of students who can salvage" it.

If Walker Percy laments packaged dogfish and packaged Shakespeare, then Henry David Thoreau in Walden has something not good to say about packaged meals—prepared by others at a distance—with inane dinner chatter.

It would seem as if the very language of our parlours would lose all its nerve and degenerate into palaver wholly, our lives pass at such remoteness from its symbols, and its metaphors and tropes are necessarily so far fetched, through slides and dumb-waiters, as it were; in other words, the parlour is so far from the kitchen and workshop. The dinner even is only the parable of a dinner, commonly. As if only the savage dwelt near enough to Nature and Truth to borrow a trope from them. How can the scholar, who dwells away in the North West Territory or the Isle of Man, tell what is parliamentary in the kitchen?2

Rather let us participate in the preparation of the food we eat, or at least witness it. The barbecue. There is a happy occasion, and one where traditionally the father, the man of the house, cooks the meat. And yes, "my papa" in the poem certainly had access to the kitchen. Goes with happy associations.

But the student, trapped in a schoolroom on a sunny day, perhaps with a teacher he doesn't like or who grades him unfairly, struggling through a stack of boring texts, has influences on him that may darken his understanding of "My Papas's Waltz," influences completely exterior to the poem itself. And if the above weren't bad enough, we now—after the era of the Vietnam conflict—study in an atmosphere of "political correctness."

"They sent us, then brought us back when it was no longer convenient. Blamed us for their malaise. Then two decades later asked forgiveness when it was stylish to do so. In return we got a black marble wall, bad dreams, and eyes that could no longer cry. Now they were busy condemning patterns of speech and thoughts they didn't agree with. Political correctness is the new tyranny. The new intolerance. They want to make the rules and hope we're not watching them do it."
—W.L. Ripley, Storm Front3

The words politically correct are to me as a red flag to a bull. In any other context a reference to politics implies a whole field of deviousness and expediency. There would have been no need to devise such a phrase as political correctness except as a more acceptable way of saying I know it's rubbish but I want it to be true so you must believe it anyway. Outdated attitudes were changing without the extra leverage, and the label of political correctness was now too often being used to condemn attitudes which had been adopted because the experience of a thousand generations had shown that they were what the majority wanted, rightly or wrongly, to believe.
—Gerald Hammond, Twice Bitten4

An environment of political correctness ultimately affects our attitudes towards sexual dynamics in the family. The kind of America our troops in Vietnam fought in behalf of no longer exists on account of PC rules. Granted, our attitudes towards some issues—like drunk driving—have improved, but they would have done that without any PC movement. The picture of "My Papa's Waltz" would have been approved, rightly or wrongly, by a thousand generations, but our current environment has it looking like child abuse. Imperfections that were once overlooked for the sake of a man doing his best to raise his family are now to be accounted for. If a man cannot cry, or has some other harshness of demeanor, why, he is a failure to his family.

Academia. Immune to social movements? I trust not. Pardon this digression. Without it my reader may miss my approach. Take George F. Gilder's book Sexual Suicide, an important work for our times. His quite understandable premise is that humankind's sexes male and female were not made by a social engineer striving for equality. A woman's sexuality is more readily fulfilled by her body: the monthly reminder, getting pregnant, gestation, childbirth, nurturing, menopause, etc., with all the natural bonding between mother and child. A man's sexuality is expressed in but one brief act. Therefore man needs to be socialized in relation to the woman his partner and their offspring, through marriage of course, and by taking on socially defined roles, albeit somewhat artificial, like providing as a breadwinner.

Because of the high social cost of having unattached men running loose fulfilling their sexuality in the only way they have, fighting to prove they're a man, and all the other trouble unattached males get into, we do well to make the life of family responsibility attractive to them, including marginally better pay and position for men in the workplace. Right or wrong, this is how a thousand generations have done it and the prevailing de facto practice when Roethke penned "My Papa's Waltz."

Back to academia and political correctness. I am taking my illustration from a fictional small college in New Hampshire where a professor of German literature is up for tenure and his prospects are not good. He loves his field. His students love him and he gets the highest marks on his evaluations. He's up for an award for one of the translations he's done. He's published a number of articles, but, alas, no book.

Our sympathies go out to him. He's in his fifties and has married a woman twenty years his junior and they have an adorable girlchild. He's not about to take some position elsewhere at this stage, and it's all he knows. But he's expecting to get the boot. Why didn't he plan better? He explains that he never really planned anything, all the academic doors always opened for him, and he loved the field so he pursued it. He didn't actually plan his career, let alone push out some minority.

Besides the assault on his masculinity of being about to lose his position, his wife is finding it a breeze to get hired in her erstwhile field and is critical of her husband for not fighting harder about his impending tenure denial. Even the daycare matron is critical of his adorable four-year-old for being too ... shy. Under these conditions we want to see him granted tenure.

Downstairs, he taps on the door of the department chair, Monica Beniquez, and, after a confused exchange, is sitting in a chair by her desk. "Sorry to walk in here like this, Monica. I'm not sure I even know what I'm doing."

Monica looks at him across her desk—kindly, he thinks—but says nothing, merely looks.

"Otto told me about the preliminary vote, and how slim my chances are, as has the dean, and, I don't know, I just thought I'd stop in. I guess I'm in serious trouble. Monica, we've been friends, you know I'm a good teacher—do you have any advice?"

Monica continues looking at him with her sad expression. At last she says, "I'm really sorry, Glen, because I don't know what to say."

"I'm probably a goner, I know that. I'm not asking for support, it's not like that. I'm—what's a person to do?"

"Well ..."

"Really. No punches pulled. I need some help."

"Well, in the profession—it seems brutal, and this is certainly off the record—we haven't looked at an application from a man in over five years. The department, the university, is top-heavy with men. What can I say? It's an adjustment that will go on for some time."

"Just like that, I'm out—everywhere?"

"I'd like to tell you otherwise, but you asked for some hard truth. You might pick up a replacement job, and you might try prep schools. As for being a candidate for new positions, well, the likelihood is hardly promising. You wanted the truth, I'm afraid that's it."

"I knew things were bad, I didn't know they were that bad."

"For women and minorities, frankly, they're not so bad. Young women. Most positions get redefined as entry-level and are going to young women just earning their degrees and just beginning to publish. That's the reality of academic life."

"I'm not sure that's fair."

Monica's expression tells him there isn't much else she'd like to say. He nods, thanks her, and leaves.

—Theodore Weesner, Novemberfest5

Under these conditions where his masculinity is seriously assaulted on all sides, he is being propositioned into a dalliance with an attractive co-ed. He has been resisting her for the sake of his family, although he's sown some wild oats in his youth. What do you think the inevitable conclusion will be?

Do we really want diversity to be the sine qua non of professional life when it results in diversity of sex partners for a married man? Of course, not. Bad news for society. We're better off having academia top-heavy with men. Less social cost.

Your school probably doesn't have this problem, but maybe something similar to it. At any rate, they're probably not able to change it even if they wanted to. But that's not to say these scholars don't have a guilty conscious about it at some level. Maybe such a climate would influence their thinking, and that of the students, to try to make the world more amenable to political correctness: If the professor is to be held strictly to the standard of books published for tenure regardless of how that harms his family life, then maybe we shouldn't either overlook papa's drunkenness even though he's giving his kid some beneficial though rowdy attention. And if women are to be elevated irrespective of merit, maybe the mother's frown deserves more attention.

Child abuse. Now, there's a dark thought. Because of some fallen pans occasioning a frown on mother's face? Ah, but reading the poem at, say, a barbecue might give one a different slant on what is parliamentary in the kitchen, different from reading it in a politically correct schoolroom.

One night I went to a neighbor's for a summer solstice celebration. There was a six pack of beer some men were drinking. We had snacks including peas picked fresh from the garden. "Are we running out? I'll pick more." We performed a ritual. We discussed life and death matters of our pets. I was shown the neighbor's tree house under construction. The man has a complete workshop, makes all kinds of "rustic furnishings," and now was doing a credible job on a tree house. How, I wondered, do they get up into it? The lady of the house explained that there will be a ladder in the tree when it is done; now they use their long ladder. But she can only climb to the fifth rung before getting too frightened to proceed. Someone suggested, "Don't look down." But no matter which way she looks, she panics.

Another neighbor brought a book of poetry. I left early so I don't know what was read, but I expect nobody would have batted an eyelash at Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz." The mother couldn't unfrown her face? Well, the lady of the house was not happy no matter which way she looked from the ladder. But the tree house was parliamentary in the yard.

Or maybe it was the rough character of the waltz itself that threw off the student seeing in it some dark activity. Ah, but wasn't she reviewing the poem for an English Literature class? Well, the class must have studied Shakespeare's Hamlet. Remember Hamlet's little soliloquy at the end of Act Three scene 2 upon being summoned by the queen whose son "can so stonish a mother! [his] behaviour hath struck her into amazement and admiration."

        'Tis now the very witching time of night,
        When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out
        Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood,
        And do such bitter business as the day
        Would quake to look on. Soft! now to my mother.
        O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
        The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom.
        Let me be cruel, not unnatural:
        I will speak daggers to her, but use none.
        My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites -
        How in my words somever she be shent,
        To give them seals never, my soul, consent!

Both Hamlet's and papa's actions happen at the witching hour, but they retain their natural affections for mother and son. They are cruel but not unnatural, their harsh words and hands being "hypocritical" (in a Shakespearean sense), doing no actual damage to their flesh and blood.

happy women, frowning boyA difference in masculine and feminine perspective is shown in this cartoon by H.T. Webster. Here the women are smiling while the boy is frowning. He likes rough play as "the Murray Ave. Wildcat" while the women like gentler activities like singing. Note the difference in perspective is reflected in their clothing, the women wearing genteel garb while the boy is dressed for football.

The key to understanding My Papa's Waltz is found in the story of Joseph's coat of many colors. (Genesis 37:3) "Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors." The old man's special love is demonstrated in a flamboyant work of art: a colorful coat or a vigorous dance. In fact the two can be identified with each other at the tender point where papa "waltzed me off to bed/Still clinging to your shirt" as in Bible days "Both men and women ... wore over their tunics loose, ankle-length robes, which could also serve as blankets on cold nights."6 Joseph and the boy would both enjoy sweet dreams for the same reason.

army of semitic papa sans waltzing into EgyptThis picture in the tomb at Beni-Hasan dates from about 1900 B.C., which was the period of the patriarchs. We may imagine that Abraham and his family looked something like this. The style and color of their clothing are faithfully reproduced with a wonderful red and blue pattern, the colors for men's wear; green seems to have been reserved for women. Square woolen blankets, reaching in the case of the men to the knee, in the case of the women to the calf, are caught up on one shoulder. They consist of highly colored striped material and serve as cloaks. Does that not remind us of the famous "coat of many colors" which Jacob, much to the annoyance of his other sons, bestowed upon his favorite son Joseph? (Gen. 37:3)
Werner Keller, The Bible as History7

Normally that story concerns mainly the envy of Joseph's brothers, so in order to look at the father-boy-mother dynamics, we shall use Thomas Mann's historical fiction account of Joseph's coat. In it we can see both the tender love of father to son along with the muted disapproval of mother.

In this account, the coat was derived from a royal wedding veil of Joseph's now deceased mother, Jacob's wife Rachel. As such, to give it presumed a bestowal of a blessing traditionally reserved for the firstborn son, not Joseph the eleventh. Therefore his father was reluctant to give it, but instead displayed it as a merchant does to a prospective customer.

Joseph's coat of many colors displayedThe lad stared in amaze. He drew a long breath through his open, laughing mouth. The metal embroideries glittered in the lamplight. The flashing silver and gold blotted out at times the quieter colours as the old man held it up in his unsteady arms: the purple, white, olive-green, rose-colour, and black of the emblems and images, the stars, doves, trees, gods, angels, men, and beasts, lustrous against the bluish mist of the background.

"Ye heavenly lights!" Joseph burst out. "How beautiful! O dearest father merchant, what showest thou to thy customer, there under thy arch? There is Gilgamesh, with the lion in the bend of his arm, I recognize him from here. And there is a man fighting with a griffin and swinging a club. Wait, wait! Ye heavenly hosts, what animals are here! I see the paramours of the goddess — bat, steed, wolf, and bright-coloured bird. Let me look — ah, let me look! I cannot make out, I cannot distinguish. And my eyes burn from staring across such a distance. Is that the scorpion-human pair, with the prickly tails? It seemeth so, but I cannot be certain, though mine eyes water with my hands behind my back. But oh, ye Elohim, how it groweth in beauty as I come near it! And all becometh clear. What are the bearded spirits doing at the tree? They are fructifying it. ... And what is it that is written here? I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? Wonderful! Always Nana, with sun, moon, and dove. Ah, I must stand up! Merchant, I must get up, else I cannot see the top: the date palm, out of which a goddess stretcheth her arms with food and drink. I may touch it, may I not? There is no charge, I hope, if I lift it up, ever so carefully, in my hand, to feel its weight and its mixture of lightness and heaviness. ... Merchant, I am poor, I cannot buy. Merchant, give it to me! Thou hast so many wares — give me the veil! Or be so kind to lend it to me, that I show myself to the people to the honour of thy shop. No, thou wilt not — thou art adamant? Or waverest thou, perhaps, a tiny bit, and despite all thy severity wouldst like to see me in it? No, I am wrong, thou swayest a little only from the holding up and spreading out. Thou hast strained thyself much too long already. Give it to me. How doth one wear it, how put it on? Like this — or like this? Or this way? How do I please thee? Am I the gay shepherd-bird in the many-coloured coat? Mami's raiment — how doth it become her son?

He looked, of course, like a young god. The effect he produced was only to be expected, and his eagerness to bring it about did anything but strengthen Jacob's resistance. We shall do well to recognize at once the irresistible guile by which he had finessed the garment out of Jacob's hands into his own. And this was scarcely done when the thing was on his back — put there by two or three deft and assured motions which themselves evinced great skill in the art of dressing. How well it set him off! It covered his head and wrapped his shoulders, the silver doves glittered and the gay embroideries glowed, it fell in folds about his youthful form and made him look taller than he really was. But not only so. For the festal garment became his face to such an extent that nobody who saw him could have disputed the popular verdict upon his charms. It made him so lovely and so well-favoured that the phenomenon was actually no longer quite earthly; in fact if bordered on the supernatural. Worst of all, the likeness of his mother — her look, her forehead and brows, the shape of her mouth — had never stood out so clearly as in this dress; poor Jacob was so smitten by it that his eyes overflowed, and he thought nothing else than that he was beholding Rachel in Laban's house, on the day of the fulfillment.

It was the mother-goddess who stood there before him smiling, in the boy's lovely guise, and asked:

"I have put on my coat — shall I take it off?"

"No, no keep it, keep it!" the father said. The young god rushed away. Jacob lifted his brow and his hands, and his lips moved in prayer.

The excitement was tremendous. The first to see Joseph in his coat of many colours was Benjamin; but Benjamin was not alone. Joseph found him in the women's tent, with the concubines. He entered their quarters in his new finery and said: "Greeting to you all. I have just come by to look in on my little brother. Lo, thou art here, my Beni; I only wanted to ask how you all are. So you are combing flax? And Turturra is helping? Do any of you know the whereabouts of old Eliezer?"

"Turturra" meant "little one" — Joseph often called his brother by this Babylonian pet name. And Turturra was already giving vent to long-drawn cries of admiration, Bilhah and Zilpah chimed in. He wore his robe with a careless air, drawn up and thrust through the girdle of his smock.

"What are you all chirping about and making eyes like cartwheels? Oh, you mean my garment, Mami's veil ketonet? I am wearing it for a while, Israel having made me a present of it a few minutes ago."

"Joseph-el, thou sweetest lord, son of the favourite," cried Zilpah. "Hath Jacob then given thee the coat of many colours, in which he first received Leah my mistress? He hath done wisely and justly indeed, for the heart melteth within one at the sight so that one could not imagine another wearing it. One of those now on a journey perhaps, the offspring of Leah from whom Jacob lifted it for the first time? Or my Gad or Asher, born on Leah's lap? The very idea maketh one to smile, albeit ruefully."

"Joseph-ja, loveliest one!" Bilhah cried. "Nothing more beautiful can be conceived than thy looks in this robe! One is tempted to prostrate oneself at the sight; and especially I, who am only a handmaid, though sister and favourite to Rachel thy mother, to whom by the power of Jacob I bore thy elder brothers Dan and Naphtali. They too will fall down before thee or be like to it, when they see the youth in their mother's wedding garment. Go then swiftly and show thyself to them unawares, while they are yet in all innocence and dream not that our lord hath chosen thee. Likewise thou shouldst go across country and show thyself to Leah's six red-eyed sons, that thou mayest hear their exulting shouts and their hosannas may strike upon thine ear."

It is almost incredible, but Joseph did not notice the thick layer of bitterness and spite which coated the women's words. His self-absorption, his blissful though none the less reprehensible self-confidence made him deaf and unresponsive to any warning. He sucked up the honey of their words, quite convinced that he deserved it all. It never occurred to him to look beneath the surface.

—Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers8

Both my papa's waltz and the coat of many colors were a mixture of lightness and heaviness. Little Benjamin marveled at its elegance on his older brother Joseph, but the women, the mothers of Joseph's ten older brothers, outwardly approved but inwardly cringed. Although Jacob (Israel) had the right to indulge Joseph so, it was a token of upset to the family hierarchy, the young brother seeming to get what an older brother should be in line for. Similarly the frowning mama, although she had to go along with papa's right to play with his son, nevertheless cringed at the disorder it brought to her house and kitchen.

I shall return us to this story of Joseph's coat of many colors eventually to compare its symbology with that in Papa's Waltz , all in good time, but first I think it beneficial to examine the actual passage(s) from Thomas Mann's historical fiction that seems to be the kernel of inspiration for The Waltz in the first place. I'm thinking of the good-night blessing ritual that was part of the negotiation for the sale of Joseph by the Ishmaelites to Potiphar's house as told by Mann in the (2 volume) section: Joseph in Egypt. This was published in 1938—at least in the English version—and Roethke's poem in 1942, so the timing is right. Furthermore, it was a well read book in its day. Look at its reviews:

"Joseph in Egypt and the epic of which it is a part compose a masterpiece. It is great to us. It will be no less great to those who come after us. Of the hallmarks of true greatness it possesses many, and one indisputably: it is at once contemporary and classic. Here is the labor of a man deeply and richly of our own time, and yet it draws on the storehouse of the past, so that it seems to have been written both today and always."
—Clifton Fadiman, in The New Yorker

"Here is a literary event of the first magnitude, the revitalization of ancient mythical material in terms of universal and therefore also in terms of contemporary needs. ... But purely as narrative and background there is a magnificent story here which exceeds in drama, opulence and movement anything that Hollywood has ever dreamed. ... It marks the establishment of a truly universal literature such as Goethe foresaw and such as Nietzsche aspired to when he fulminated against the restrictions of nationalism. It is limited neither in the qualities of its time element nor in its special environment. It belongs to the whole world, to life itself, for it represents in perfect artistic form the highest aspirations of humanity in this or any other day."
Agnes E. Meyer, in The New York Times Book Review
It is entirely conceivable that Roethke was familiar with it when he wrote "My Papa's Waltz," especially since Joseph in Egypt is to this day a part of the course offering Religion and Literature at the University of Washington where Roethke ended up teaching. In fact Mann interjects himself into his own narrative right after that point to tell us: "I have never tried to produce the illusion that I am the source of the history of Joseph. Before it could be told, it happened, it sprang from the source from which all history springs, and tells itself as it goes. Since that time it exists in the world, everybody knows it or thinks he does — for often enough the kowledge is unreal, casual, and disjointed. It had been told a hundred times, in a hundred different media. And now it is passing through another."9 Might this not be just the suggestion to tell it yet again in the medium of poetry which lends itself eminently to an "unreal, casual, and disjointed" telling?

Well, let's see if the glove fits. The negotiation for Joseph's sale starts with Joseph's master having a riddle.

"A riddle?" repeated the overseer absently ...

Guess it if you will," said the old man. "It runs: 'A barren mother bore him to me.' Can you solve the riddle?"

... "'Barren'?" he asked, for he had heard the old man's words with half an ear. "A barren mother? What does that mean? A woman is barren or else she bears. Both cannot be true."

"It is a riddle, my lord," explained the old man. "I took the liberty to dress my reply in the garment of jest. If it please you, I will supply the answer. Far from here, I came on a dry well, out of which sounded a whimpering. And I drew up to the light of day this which had been three days in the well's belly, and gave it milk. Thus the well became a mother and yet was barren."

"H'm," waid the overseer. "Your riddle is passable, more one cannot say, or laugh very heartily at it. If I smile, it is out of pure politeness."

"Mayhap," replied the old man, rather hurt, "you might have laughed more readily if you had been able to guess it."

—Thomas Mann, Joseph in Egypt10
If we are trying on the glove one finger at a time, this works for the mother. She is a riddle in the poem as well as in the negotiation. Either a woman complains about something she doesn't like, or she puts up with it. Roethke has her seeming to do both and leaves us with a riddle. The negotiation concludes with:
"Farewell, my son," the old man said, "and show thyself worthy of my kindness. Be tactful and obliging to all, and bridle thy tongue ... Sweetness is given to thy mouth; for thou knowest how to bid a soothing good-night and turn a phrase with charm. Keep to such, then, and rejoice mankind, instead of winning their abhorrence for thy carping, for it doeth no good. And now farewell. Those errors which brought thee to thy grave —— culpable self-confidence and blind presumption —— of them I need not warn thee, for I think thou are taught of experience to shun them."
—Thomas Mann, Joseph in Egypt11
His now former master represents the kindly father who has his son's best interests at heart, "My Papa." The sweet turn of phrase in a good-night blessing ritual becomes the twirling waltz in this disjointed poetic telling. Well, we can jam a couple of fingers into the glove, and we've managed to bracket the poetic source between mama and papa, so let's see what we can find in the negotiation itself.

"I well know that a man should not boast of his own, but leave it to others to call it extraordinary. Yet indeed, for the dexterity and the understanding of this youth, purified as they are by chastisements, there is in the language but one word: they are extraordinary."12 This applies to Joseph, to be sure, but also to Mann's work itself as attested to by the review(s) above: "great" & "magnicicent," and also a goal at least for a poem attempted by Roethke.

'"... Your master says that you can utter pleasant wishes and say good-night in a variety of ways at the end of the day. Well, I too shall go to bed tonight and lie on my bed in the special room of trust. What will you say to me?" ¶"Rest gently," answered Joseph with feeling, "after the toil of the day. May your soles, that are scorched from the heat of your path, move blissfully over the mosses of peace, and your languid tongue be refreshed from the murmuring springs of night." ¶"Yes, that is really moving," said the steward."'12 Well, there are a couple more fingers going into the glove quite nicely. The scorched soles moving blissfully over the mosses of peace become a "palm caked hard by dirt" beating a rhythm on the boy's soft hair—here used as a peaceful image, at least from papa's perspective. And the "murmuring springs of the night" become the percussion of the pans falling from the shelf, both seeming to act as of their own volition.

"Two hundred deben of copper the slave must be reckoned at, considering his extraordinary properties. But the little onions and the wine from Khadati I will throw in, as a gage of friendship."12 Thus the wine and onions on the breath become the whiskey on papa's breath, a gage of friendship as he'd been out drinking with the boys before coming home to tuck his kid in for the night. Roethke uses the alcohol on the breath simply as a sign of social drinking; nothing more is suggested in the poem itself.

The two dwarves vigorously debate Joseph's worth: '"It is absurd! ... — asking two hundred copper deben for this lout here —" and he gestured palm upwards at Joseph as he stood beside him — for such worthless trash, a snot-nosed sand-rabbit! It is all highly suspicous to me; he may be able to prattle about moss and murmuring streams, but who knows what sort of abandoned vices brought him to acquaintance with the pit that the old rascal is supposed to have got him from?'12 to which the other drarf offered, "Buy the sand-boy. Of all the seven gifts buy him alone, for he is the best. ... Good, beautiful, and wise is [Joseph]. Blessed is he and will be a blessing to the house. Hearken to the voice of wisdom."12 Thus Roethke's poem can be debated either way: a picture of a crude interaction between father (with his vices) and son, or something both wise and beautiful.

Before examining "My Papa's Waltz" proper, let's look at a couple more passages from Mann that can enlighten us about Roethke. Potiphar's wife telling us of her inability to communicate with him can shed some light on the silent mother in the Waltz. "My solemn friend, it seldom happens that it is vouchsafed to the mistress to speak in confidence with the master. Think of the formal manners of our house and do not dream that it stands between him and me as between you and her who is your spouse and familiar, Djeset your wife, who puts her arm about you. She comes in simple confidence and speaks of all her concerns and yours and may also decide your mind to do this or that course. For she is a mother, having borne you two sightly sons, Esesi and Ebebi, so that you are bound in gratitude to her and have all reason to give her your ear and heed her words and wishes. But what am I to the master and what cause has he to hearken to me? For his self-will is great, his mood unhearing; I am powerless before him with my reminders."13 Before we attribute the mute mother's reason for silence to the unattentiveness of papa, we should consider that he does in fact share a bond with the lady, that of their son, and we might hardly call their house formal. Then there is Joseph's description of "A mighty man, for besides being a man of God and a shiny-pate before the Lord, who should be a good father to his children and put out his hand to them that stumble, he has a head for things of the Earth and for political affairs—one has to admire him for it."13 A good father extends his hand to his child about to stumble. My father encouraged me to be more coordinated, but I didn't gain coordination until I took up folk dancing. There is no better way for a father to instill coordination in his son than to take him in hand and dance with him—regularly—thus preventing him from stumblng. We may also admire papa for being a man of the world, not afraid to get his hands dirty, and politic enough to go drinking with the guys.

Now, to solve the riddle of the unhappy silent mother, let's look at the KORAN, at Jasher, and at one other passage from Mann:

(XII. Mecca.)

And the man from Egypt who had bought him said to his wife, 'Honour his abiding here; it may be he will be of use to us, or we may adopt him as a son.

Thus did we stablish Joseph in the land; and we did surely teach him the interpretation of sayings; for Allah can overcome His affairs, though most men do not know.


And women in the city said, 'The wife of the prince desires her young man for his person; he has infatuated her with love: verily, we see her in obvious error.' And when she heard of their craftiness, she sent to them, and prepared for them a banquet, and gave each of them a knife; and she said, 'Come forth to them!' And when they saw him they said, 'Great Allah!' and cut their hands and said, 'Allah forbid! This is no mortal, this is nothing but an honourable angel.' Said she, 'This is he concerning whom ye blamed me. I did desire him for his person, but he was too continent.


  1. And when she could not prevail over him, to persuade him, and her soul being still fixed upon him, her desire threw her into a grievous sickness.
  2. And all the women of Egypt came to visit her, and they said unto her, Why art thou in this declining state? thou that lackest nothing; surely thy husband is a great and esteemed prince in the sight of the king, shouldst thou lack anything of what thy heart desireth?
  3. And Zelicah answered them, saying, This day it shall be made known to you, whence this disorder springs in which you see me, and she commanded her maid servants to prepare food for all the women, and she made a banquet for them, and all the women ate in the house of Zelicah.
  4. And she gave them knives to peel the citrons to eat them, and she commanded that they should dress Joseph in costly garments, and that he should appear before them, and Joseph came before their eyes and all the women looked on Joseph, and could not take their eyes from off him, and they all cut their hands with the knives that they had in their hands, and all the citrons that were in their hands were filled with blood.
  5. And they knew not what they had done but they continued to look at the beauty of Joseph, and did not turn their eyelids from him.
  6. And Zelicah saw what they had done, and she said unto them, What is this work that you have done? behold I gave you citrons to eat and you have all cut your hands.
  7. And all the women saw their hands, and behold they were full of blood, and their blood flowed down upon their garments, and they said unto her, this slave in your house has overcome us, and we could not turn our eyelids from him on account of his beauty.
  8. And she said unto them, Surely this happened to you in the moment that you looked at him, and you could not contain yourselves from him; how then can I refrain when he is constantly in my house, and I see him day after day going in and out of my house? how then can I keep from declining or even from perishing on account of this?

I was smearily eating the juice-spurting orange, trying without success to keep my face from being a mess, aware that by making myself look unkempt I was making myself younger and more vulnerable, hoping to bring down Axenfeld's guard, when he suddenly said, 'This reminds me of that telling scene about Potiphar's wife from Thomas Mann's Joseph tetralogy. You don't know it? It's marvelous. She invites over for an afternoon party the cream of Egyptian high-society women. They disdain her because by now her admiration for the young Hebrew slave Joseph has become the very essence of court gossip. Yet because of her husband's position and power, they daren't refuse her invitation. While they are sitting around the garden, she has the beautiful Joseph in his scantiest outfit go to each of the women, serving ripe fruit and sharp little knives. In minutes all the distracted women are cut and bleeding. When they hold out their lacerated fingers and mutilated hands complaining to Potiphar's wife, she sends them home, saying, "Now perhaps you'll understand how I bleed every day of my unhappy life."'
—Felice Picano, The Book of Lies14

She sat there with her suffering air, her brooding, sinister, masklike face and sinuous mouth, and looked at the mischief she had worked; ... ¶It was a fearful sight. With some the nimble knife had gone an inch deep in the flesh and the blood did not ooze, it spouted. The little hands, the golden apples, were drenched with the red liquid, it dyed the fresh whiteness of the linen garments and soaked through into the women's laps, making pools which dripped down on the floor and their little feet.
—Thomas Mann, Joseph in Egypt15
Evidently this is where Roethke got his idea for the unsmiling mother: Potiphar's wife who had to give an elaborate demonstration to explain the cause of her unhappiness, which involved the lad moving about the fountain court to the columned hall with a series of accidents involving kitchen utensils. Considering the source of the image, one could more imagine the mother as the abusive one rather than the father, although I think it merely translates to a vulnerable boy worrying his mother rather than anything more sinister.

Now, there is a symbology given us in Joseph's story where (Gen. 37:9-10) "he dreamed yet another dream, and told it his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me. And he told it to his father, and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him, and said unto him, What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the Earth?" The father is the sun, the mother the moon, and the eleven brothers the stars. These symbols, of sun and moon at least, come into play in "My Papa's Waltz."

The apostle Paul made it parliamentary in the church for women to have their heads covered when praying or prophesying. After recounting woman's purpose in creation to be a helpmeet for man, he proceeds: "For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels." (I Cor. 11:10) Might we not consider it a case of the lady of the house, afraid of heights, having power on her head when she readily accommodates her husband's backyard building plans in the tree? Or the frowning mother in "My Papa's Waltz," for that matter, when she tolerates a nightly mad romp through the house? The "child abuse" interpretation of the poem in that case would be an attempt to undercut the woman having power on her head. Paul wasn't having it. Yes, and Paul's reference to the Jewish cosmology of his time that would be contradicted if women didn't have power on their heads—"because of the angels"—suggests to me that I reference a scientific cosmology understood in our time that would be contradicted, once the cosmological archetypes are developed, should the mother not have power on her head.

Dana Gioia
c/o Addison Wesley Longman

Jan. 19, 1998
Dear editor:

In my letter of 1/11/98 I compared My Papa's Waltz to white-collar computer simulations (of the solar system) with his kids, and I hinted that a science or math student could introduce chaos theory into the discussion. I've found such discussions—between a scientist and his policewoman date, between a mathematician and his lawyer date—in English literature:

"Chaos," Cross said. He pointed to the rippling arcs of light playing across the tabletop. They came from a flickering candle flame, dancing erratically in a small red glass set at the side of the table he shared with Duvall.

"It appears to be a very simple system," Cross continued, the shifting light reflected in his eyes. "A wick, the wax, combustion with atmospheric oxygen, resulting light modulated by passage through the glass of the candle holder, yet it's inherently unpredictable. The best computer in the world, the best computer imaginable, could not predict the pattern this light will take from moment to moment." He smiled at Duvall, as warm as the candlelight. "It's the secret of the universe."

"Sounds messy," Duvall said. She might have been isolated on a mountain with Cross, alone in the desert. His presence overwhelmed everything else; the restaurant, the other diners, the things she had yet to talk to him about.

"But it's what makes the universe so full of possibilities, gives us what free will we have, or at least lets us think that we have it." He leaned forward over the table. His plate of vegetables had long gone. Only his water glass and Duvall's glass of wine and cup of coffee remained. "Do you know about Isaac Newton?"

"The apple on the head guy? Discovered gravity."

Cross smiled again. "Fair enough." Duvall had lost any inhibitions about displaying her ignorance about his field. He never once through the evensong had shown impatience with how little she knew. "He did write once that his thoughts on gravity were 'occasioned by the fall of an apple.' And he didn't technically discover gravity because it was here all along. But he was the first to describe it mathematically, to reduce its gross effects to equations. Anyway, the thing about Newton's work is that at the time it seemed to confirm what some philosophers had believed anyway, that the universe was as predictable as a piece of clockwork. With Newton's equations as a guiding light, some people thought that in time the entire universe would be seen to be completely deterministic."

Duvall shook her head.

"That everything in the universe, from the movements of the planets to the smallest decisions of each individual person could be predicted," Cross explained. "That each of us was trapped in a specific mode of action as surely as a cannonball must follow its trajectory."

"And you think we're not trapped?"

"By convention and society, of course. By laws, certainly." He looked at the candle flame the way Duvall had seen him stare into the sunlight beneath the wooden balcony. She wondered what he saw. "Some of us, at least. But in the final analysis, we're not important. What is important is that at its most fundamental level the universe is not predictable. Cannot be predictable." He turned back to Duvall, eyes solid with blackness, glittering with light. "And that's what saves us."


"By giving us mystery, which we may explore. Must explore. Otherwise, what meaning is there to our lives?"16

"Damn," she muttered, "and I thought I was getting a glimmer of understanding. What about the butterfly effect; you know, the butterfly in Brazil changes the weather in New York?"

He shook his head. "That's something else again, the Lorenz Effect, talking short term now, not eons. That says that a minute change in a system can have very large effects. And since you can't predict the minute variation, you can't predict the large system. Meteorology is deep into chaos these days."

She sipped the coffee, frowning. "According to the books I've already read, the chaos theory is being applied up and down the line in every field you can name."

"Hardly a theory," he said. "We like to say the laws of chaos." He was grinning at her. "Look, do you have a couple hours? Let me give you the introductory lecture I'll be using this term, complete with slides. Like I said, I can't make a connection between the shrink and the mathematician, but maybe something will occur to me. Game?"

"With equations?"

He laughed. "Two or three, no more than that, I promise, and they're pretty elementary. Come on. You can always stop me."

But it would have been impossible to stop once they began to view the slides, and he began to point out strange attractors, the fractal qualities of coasts and trees and clouds, and turbulence, and phase space. The slides he had arranged for the lecture were astonishingly beautiful, compelling. fractal leaf

Start with the whole tree," he said, "and then the single leaf, and now the veins in the leaf, and the root system, all similar. Not identical, mind you, but self-similar. And in this slide, see how the attractor seems to fly out of control and create islands? Then it got back on the main course, but if we zoom in on one of those islands, magnify it, see? Similar to the whole. And zoom in again, focus on details that are smaller and smaller, and you can see that the island's not isolated at all, but attached by that filament. Nothing's isolated, nothing. It's all connected."

He changed the image again. "Now about scaling. It's very simple really. We usually use the island of Great Britain because we have such good satellite pictures of it. How long is the coastline? The answer must be infinite. At this distance, from space, the coastline would be a few inches." The NASA photograph showed the whole of the Earth, and then the whole of the island of Great Britain in sharp detail. Mike traced the island with his finger. "You could print out a picture and measure it with a tape measure. But get in closer, change the scale, you see, the measurement increases." He zoomed in on a section of the coast, then again on a bay, again to a miniature bay, and again and again. Each time the similarity was there; each time with more and more detail, the measurement changed. "Until finally," he said, "you are down to measuring grains of sand, and you could go to the molecular level, the atomic, the subatomic. The same land, the same island, always similar, always using a different scale. Where does it stop? Only when we get beyond where our instruments can follow."


Frank came to the table and poured himself a glass of wine. "What's so great about chaos? Barbara showed me the pictures, and I said, 'So what?' She really didn't know so what."

"We're finding out so what at a pretty good clip," Mike said. "We have tools we never had before to measure and predict aspects of nature that were out of bounds for centuries." Barbara had put candles on the table; he picked up the matches she had put down and lighted one. "Watch the smoke," he said. A column of silvery smoke rose straight up, then started to swirl around and disappeared. "Turbulence," Mike said and blew out the candle. "We've always known it was there, in smoke, in the flow of water, in the heart, the brain, but we couldn't do anything with it. We didn't have the tools. Now we do. We know now that it's not incremental, but catastrophic in nature. Turbulence arrives all at once. Or the smoke breaks out of the smooth column."


"How do those pretty pictures figure in all this?" Frank took his wine back to the working half of the kitchen and began to stir something in a pot.

"Those Mandelbrot images are derived from one of the simplest algorithms ever discovered—" He stopped when Frank groaned very loudly. "Anyway, from this very simple instruction those sets are derived; they have fractal properties, that is, they are self-similar, no matter what the scale is, and they are infinite. From the simple comes the most complex. And that describes just about every natural object that exists, they all have fractal properties. The most complex dynamic systems can be described by another equation that is equally simple, and it has a universal application. That means it can be applied to all turbulent systems up and down the line. We used to think each one had to be considered independently and painstakingly worked out. Now there is a universal algorithm to use. What we're learning is that under the most chaotic-appearing systems, there is order and simplicity. And from order arises chaos. And the world is not what it seemed to be just a few years ago."17

The dancing light on the table was unpredictable in its patterns though derived from a simple system, just like Papa's Waltz. Scientists call such indeterminacy chaos, contrary to the outmoded philosophy "that everything in the universe, from the movements of the planets to the smallest decisions of each individual person could be predicted." Sure, papa seems to have a lot of quirks, but how does he compare to the planets? Good question!

The "order in chaos" of "My Papa's Waltz" greatly reflects our world, a world that we who live in it recognize, but scientists (and others) with their tidy formulas have a hard time with.

Recent popular interest in the science of chaos has evolved differently than did the explosion on interest in science a century ago when special relativity hit a popular nerve that was to throb for decades. Why was the public reaction to science's embrace of mathematical chaos different? Perhaps one distinction is that most of us already knew that, sometimes, very small differences can have huge effects. The concept now called 'chaos' has its origins both in science fiction and in science fact. Indeed, these ideas were well grounded in fiction before they were accepted as fact: perhaps the public were already well versed in the implications of chaos, while the scientists remained in denial? Great scientists and mathematicians had sufficient courage and insight to foresee the coming of chaos, but until recently mainstream science required a good solution to be well behaved: fractal objects and chaotic curves were considered not only deviant, but the sign of badly posed questions. ... Only recently have the solutions that chaos requires become widely acceptable in scientific circles, and the public enjoyed the 'I told you so' glee usually claimed by the 'experts.' This also suggests why chaos while widely nurtured in mathematics and the sciences, took root within applied sciences like meteorology and astronomy. The applied sciences are driven by a desire to understand and predict reality, a desire that overcame the niceties of whatever the formal mathematics of the day.
—Leonard Smith, Chaos, Preface18

I have a chuckle on that "public ... already well versed in the implications of chaos" as that is what these waltzing verses have done. It is expected that the poet with his verse is intuitively ahead of the crowd—which is itself here ahead of the scientist with his nice solutions. "My Papa's Waltz" is an "applied science," as it were, an "applied science [that is] driven by ... reality, ... [an] applied science like meteorology and astronomy." Aha! That's just it. "My Papa's Waltz," believe it or not, seems to reflect both the molecular workings of the upper atmosphere and the planetary workings of the solar system. Let's take the beginning verse.

               The whiskey on your breath
               Could make a small boy dizzy;
               But I hung on like death;
               Such waltzing was not easy.

Let papa be the sun and his boy the Earth. Well, the radiation from the sun, at least part of its spectrum—"the whiskey on your breath"—, makes the Earth dizzy with life, and the Earth must hold on for dear life, as to fly off is to die, as is to spiral on in. In fact there is but a small margin of distance from the sun where life here could be supported. Such a waltz is definitely not easy.

The metaphor of the whiskey-breath parallels sunshine can also be derived by looking at the story of Orpheus and Eurydice from Greek mythology, which story is suggested by the plot of Roethke's poem.

Orpheus and Eurydice were in the first bloom of newlywed love when a snake bit her on the foot and killed her. Orpheus put his grief into music and both gods and mortals cried rivers, and even the wild animals lamented.

Sorrow transports people to different places. Orpheus took his grief to Hades, his love and his lyre's petition allowing him passage to a place where mortals dared not go. The dead are not allowed to leave the underworld. It was the law, and the law was as immutable as death, but Orpheus sang his case to the dark lord Pluto, and, in the end, even the king of the underworld relented. Eurydice was delivered to Orpheus on one condition: that he not look at her, or speak with her, until he was free of Hades.

The ascent out of that dark place is long and difficult; very few have ever been delivered from there. Orpheus and Eurydice almost made it out. When he saw the lights of the upper world, Orpheus turned to shout the good news, and it was then that Eurydice was dragged back down to Hades by unseen hands. Orpheus could not forgive himself. Love had almost conquered death, but not quite. Death wishes are granted more easily than most. In a matter of days Orpheus died, and was only then reunited with Eurydice.

—Alan Russell, Multiple Wounds19
Both the waltzing couple and the mourning couple had a goal: bed or deliverance. Both couples had to hold on to each other like ..., well, death. Both were subject to a fixed gaze: frowning or averted. And if such a waltz was not easy, what do you think the trip out of Hades was like? Remember Virgil:
           Facilis descensus Averni;
           Nectes atque dies patet atri janua Ditis;
           Sed revocare gradum, superasque evadere ad auras,
           Hoc opus, hic labor est.

'The descent of Avernus is easy, the gate of Pluto stands open night and day; but to retrace one's steps and return to the upper air—that is the toil, that is the difficulty.' "Hic labor est." One can't just waltz on out of Hades, at least not easily. "Such waltzing was not easy."

Well, what made the little boy dizzy? It was the whiskey on papa's breath. And what tripped up the fleeing couple? The lights of the upper world.

This ability of the sun's light to take our breath away was expressed as well as anywhere by the Brahmin priest in the Hindu sacred text "The Harivansa"20: 'O Prince, our eyes contemplate with admiration and transmit to the soul the wonderful and varied spectacle of this universe. The night veils without a doubt a part of this glorious creation; but day comes to reveal to us this great work, which extends from Earth even into the plains of the ether.'

There is a subtle use of symbols in this first stanza which is not easy to determine, just like the waltz itself. I don't know if your background includes study of the difficulty pitting scientific laws against a poet's imagination, so I shall quote Edgar Allen Poe's contribution from 1829.21

                                Sonnet—To Science

                Science! true daughter of Old Time, thou art!
                     Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
                Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart.
                     Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
                How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
                     Who wouldest not leave him in his wandering
                To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
                     Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

                Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
                     And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
                To seek shelter in some happier star?
                     Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
                The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
                The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree!

Okay, if papa is the Sun, the boy the Earth, then papa's breath would represent the radiation from the Sun. That is a straightforward symbol; it's all uphill from here. Then what is the whiskey on his breath? Enter science. From the Propagation column of WorldRadio, Oct., 2005.22

The Ionosphere: How Does It Form?
Part One

by Carl Luetzelschwab

This column discusses a missing aspect of propagation — how the ionosphere itself forms and is measured. ... The ionosphere is a complicated system and books have been written on this subject. ...
solar radiation

Figure 2 shows the intensity of ionizing radiation coming from the Sun at wavelengths between 200 and 1,600 Angstroms. As can be seen, the intensity is not a smooth function — it has spikes at discrete wavelengths. What we're seeing are spectral lines of the Sun's chromosphere and corona. The most intense spectral line between 200 and 1,600 Å is that of hydrogen Lyman-α at 1,215 Å — it is at least an order of magnitude more intense than any other radiation in this range of wavelengths.

The scientist will see the intense spectral line of hydrogen Lyman-α as the whiskey on the breath of the Sun's radiation. You or I just wouldn't think that way.

"The whiskey on your breath/Could make a small boy ..." The scientist (what a nerd!) is going to see the "small boy" as a molecule, an ionized molecule to be exact. What kind of ionized molecule does hydrogen Lyman-α radiation make? Back to the article.22

The atmosphere is 78.1% nitrogen and 20.9% oxygen, with the other 1% being several other gases. Digging deeper, we find that the atmospheric constituents that we're interested in for ionospheric purposes are atomic and molecular oxygen ( O and O2, respectively), molecular nitrogen (N2), and nitric oxide (NO). The first three ( O, O2, and N2 are referred to as major species, while the last (NO) is referred to as a minor species. ...

Do all the wavelengths in Figure 2 ionize ( O, O2, N2 and NO)? No, they don't. We have to look at the ionization potentials of our four species and calculate the maximum wavelength that has a quantum of radiation that is greater than the ionization potention (this is done using Planck's constant). Table 1 indicates the maximum wavelength that can ionize each of the four species.

Table 1 Ionization Potention and Maximum Ionization Wavelength
Species Ionization potential, eV Maximum wavelength, Å
NO 9.25 1340
O2 12.08 1027
O 13.61 911
N2 15.58 796

electromagnetic spectrum

Only wavelengths shorter than 1,340 Å can ionize NO (the 1215 Å spectral line in Figure 2 is an important player with NO). Only wavelengths shorter than 1,027 Å can ionize O2, and so forth for the other two species. There is no ionization at all by any radiation at wavelengths longer than the maximum wavelength, regardless of the intensity — for example, visible light, which is between 4,000 and 7,000 Å, cannot ionize either of our four species even though its intensity is very high.

waltz demoSo of the four players up in the ionosphere, only nitric oxide (NO) is oxidized by hydrogen Lyman-α radiation, "the whiskey on your breath." What would nitric oxide represent in poetic terms? It's a colorless poisonous gas, can come from ammonia being oxidized, it would not be a stretch to call it death. Furthermore, an accumulation of NO in the upper atmosphere can eat holes in the ozone layer. That allows harmful radiation from the Sun to get through, causing skin cancer and other problems that can bring death. But death doesn't appear until the third line: "But I hung on like death." Of course! That's what makes the waltzing so difficult to understand, the partners are turning round and round each other, switching places 180° every three beats. The three beats sound out the three major species, whence the waltz.

But that is Edgar Allen Poe's "vulture, whose wings are dull realities" circling round and round to zero in on the factual truth; only Theodore Roethke seems to be having some fun with symbols here. It is as if he stands scientific pretension on its head answering a conflict between scientific method and poetic intuition he may have felt when teaching at the University of Washington, or in preparation to. And he will not be the first poet to feel belittled. Take an excerpt from an old Irish poem:23

     The Passing of the Poets
                          by Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh
                          early 17th century

     Men of base trade look down
     on our woven rhetorical songs.
     There's nothing for slaves, I think,
     in our wise works' delicate ore.

So Roethke weaves a "rhetorical song" using a "delicate ore" that nobody regards highly but which mocks the pretentious scientist. Ha, ha!

About this point you are probably ready to leave my site for another that makes more sense, or toss it if it's printed. How, you may ask, do I expect modern man to accept this interpretation when scientists hadn't even discovered the ionosphere until 1926, and it took a lot of study to know what we do today? Was Theodore Roethke some kind of genius, an alchemist with advanced scientific knowledge? Did the aliens, perhaps, teach him? Go ahead and laugh. I have an answer.

The book of Isaiah was written about 700 B.C., give or take depending on your view of authorship. We find in (Isaiah 51:6) "Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look upon the earth beneath; for the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment, and they that dwell therein shall die in like manner: but my salvation shall be for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished." Okay, we look at the heavens and look at the radiation hitting the earth beneath. The heavens vanishing away like smoke could well be expressing the dispersal of the ozone layer. The earth waxing old like a garment: like a garment getting old means holes and blemishes, right? And earth dwellers dying in like manner means holes and/or blemishes like skin cancer. It could be saying that. And this was written two and a half millennia before Theodore Roethke ever penned "My Papa's Waltz."

Here's the thing. Edgar Allen Poe talked of "wandering to seek for treasure in the jewelled skies," and Isaiah said to "lift up your eyes to the heavens." It's common knowledge that poets look up at the sky, and, after all, everything is interconnected. The poet feels celestial and terrestrial dynamics intuitively and expresses them poetically, not in complex equations. But that doesn't mean the two are not reflected in each other. Confucius said—

How vast and profound is the influence of the subtle powers of heaven and earth!

We seek to perceive them, and we do not see them; we seek to hear them, and we do not hear them; identified with the substance of things, they cannot be separated from them.

... It is an ocean of subtle intelligences. They are everywhere, above us, on our left, on our right; they environ us on all sides.24

As "the Robin Hood hacker" put it:
I believe there are commonalities to any complex system, be it a computer or the universe. We ourselves encompass these commonalities as individual facets of the system. If you can get a subconscious sense of those patterns, sometimes they ... bring you to strange places.25
Or to take a more established voice:
The different parts of the psyche are functionally interrelated. Anthropologists have known for a long time that all aspects of culture are interrelated—everything is interrelated, interdigitated, reflected in everything else.26
So give me a break for a moment, at least until we see if this atmospheric chemistry has anything to do with making a boy dizzy. Various spectra of light have their own influences on, say, micro-organisms in the sea. There are different levels of interpretation which I haven't touched on. This analysis is for an English literature class, not science. Stars are dangerous objects for planets to revolve around. That is a given. They radiate all kinds of stuff and then they flare up. As stars go, the Sun is relatively benign. Any good science book—and many pop ones—will tell you that. "As stars go, the Sun ranks as one of the most stable and benign stars we know of for the support of advanced life."27 The papa in "My Papa's Waltz" is one of the most stable and benign drunks in all of literature for the support of his children.

Okay, we have NO which is death, nitric oxide. We want to see what it comes around to in the waltz, so we look at the line, "But I hung on like death." Looking at this line from the point of view of a chemist, hanging on would refer to the bonding of another atom to the NO, and the result being "like death" would mean a similar chemical formula. The most ready candidate is Nitrogen, add another atom to get nitrous oxide N2O. Another colorless gas, but what has that got to do with a boy getting dizzy? Hint: Ask your dentist. Well, nitrous oxide, that's laughing gas. It produces exhilaration and laughter. Our sunshine, in complicated ways not easy to figure out, (i.e., ionization of the upper atmosphere, weather circuits, photosynthesis, etc.) causes life to burst forth on our otherwise dead planet that can well be likened to giving a man laughing gas.

My speculation is that Theodore Roethke had some kind of drug induced experience on laughing gas—he wouldn't be the first poet, not the least of which is Poe—in which he somehow perceived the history of those N2O molecules from high up in the atmosphere.

There is some basis for this theory in his poem The Waking28 in which he repeats the starting expression "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow" three times. That is how one would poetically express the experience of taking laughing gas: the exhilaration—"I wake"—right before going under—"to sleep." In fact that is the most sensible interpretation of the phrase.

The second stanza gives us, "We think by feeling. What is there to know?/I hear my being dance from ear to ear." He is very intuitive, deeply intuitive, filled up with listening from "ear to ear."

Then, "Of those so close beside me, which are you?" The hospital scene of a patient in a drugged stupor having trouble recognizing his loved ones in attendance. "God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there." Of course if he is dizzy, how else would he walk? And finishing the stanza with the phrase repeated four times in the poem, "And learn by going where I have to go." Where does he have to go? To the dentist. Either that or to a hospital where the anesthetic creates a mystical learning experience.

The next verse tells us, "Light takes the Trees; but who can tell us how?" Here he is thinking about the mystery of how light interacts with nature. What did I tell you? Then the clincher, "The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair." The winding stair is, of course, the tree branches positioned according to fractal geometry to capture the most sunlight. But this is also exactly how a poet would intuitively express the migration of molecules—the lowly worm—up through the layers of the atmosphere on a rotating planet—a winding stair—eventually to come to the D region of the ionosphere where nitric oxide is ionized by a component of the Sun's spectrum.

In the next verse he is telling us to "take the lively air" in order for "Great Nature" to give us a "lovely" experience. How else would he couch an invitation to take a drug? "Lively air"meanslaughing gas. That is analogous to certain spirits (e.g. brandy, Holland gin) named in our Pilgrim fathers' records as "strong water," aqua vitae.29 Furthermore, Nitrous Oxide, laughing gas, enjoys other quaint sobriquets like "Nighty-Night."30

His body might have been exposed to nitric oxide as well. One doctor speculates that,

We and other scientists think that [low cancer rates in polluted cities exist], at least in part, because the presence of air pollutants (such as ... nitrogen oxides—[i.e. NOx]) stimulates the body to produce more of protective enzymes.

Cigarette smoke also contains carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. These dangerous gases can be found in smog in small quantities, but they are a major problem in cigarette smoke.31

The laughing gas hypothesis throws "My Papa's Waltz" into a different light when we consider the effects of elation.

A Mildly elated state—hypomania—, as it is technically called—seems optimal for writers and others in creative callings that demand fluidity and imaginative diversity of thought... But let that euphoria get out of control to become outright mania, as in the mood swings of manic-depressives, and the agitation undermines the ability to think cohesively enough to write well, even though ideas flow freely—indeed, much too freely to pursue any one of them far enough to produce a finished product. Good moods, while they last, enhance the ability to think flexibly and with more complexity, thus making it easier to find solutions to problems... This suggests that one way to help a person think through a problem is to tell him a joke. Laughing, like elation, seems to help people think more broadly and associate more freely, noticing relations that might have eluded them otherwise—a mental skill important not just in creativity, but in recognizing complex relations...

The intellectual benefits of a good laugh are most striking when it comes to solving a problem that demands a creative solution. One study found that people who had just watched a video of television bloopers were better at solving a puzzle long used by psychologists to test creative thinking. In the test people were given a candle, matches, and a box of tacks and asked to attach the candle to a corkboard wall so it will burn without dripping wax on the floor. Most people given this problem fall into "functional fixedness," thinking about using the objects in the most conventional ways. But those who had just watched the funny film, compared to others who had watched a film on math or who exercised, were more likely to see an alternative use for the box holding the tacks, and so come up with the creative solution: tack the box to the wall and use it as a candleholder.

Even mild mood changes can sway thinking. ... Being in a foul mood biases memory in a negative direction, making us more likely to contract into a fearful, overly cautious decision. Emotions out of control impede the intellect.32

Let's say that a laughing gas euphoria is higher than happy but shy of mania. Then his waltzing metaphors would be the expected result, needing just a wee bit of reconstruction as I have done. At any rate, I think the poem is a hoot, and I've gotten away from "functional fixedness" in my creative interpret ion. It but remains to be seen if the rest of the poem falls into place, that is, if the wax doesn't drip on the floor, that there is no metaphor left over. A person in a foul mood, on the other hand, might well end up with the overly cautious "child abuse" interpretation.

At this point in my analysis, let's stop and look at me, what is my perspective. Theodore Roethke taught for a good part of his adult life at the University of Washington, in Seattle. He lived until 1963. I hitchhiked through Seattle in 1970 stopping at the University for a night. One of my acquaintances in that city suffocated inhaling airplane glue. He died. It killed him. Not while I was there, though.

Blatant hitchhiking was illegal in Washington. When the police picked me up, they wanted to verify my story that I was a recent graduate in engineering from the University of Cincinnati, now loosely associated with the Jesus movement. My i.d. had been stolen and they didn't know how to proceed, so they brought in the chief of police. An engineering graduate, I claimed: they told him. He wrote on a piece of paper the formula: F = 9/5 C + 32 and asked me what it meant. I told him it was the formula for converting Centigrade to Fahrenheit. They let me go.

Knowing this about me now, you might ask if perhaps the drug connection and the scientific pretension I see manifested or answered in "My Papa's Waltz" are perhaps not products of my own experiences rather than grounded in fact. And you might be right; I never said I was certain. It is certain, however that Joseph's coat of many colors and the father parallel Sun, mother parallel Moon are archetypes as they are found in the well read Bible. Furthermore, as Roethke himself came from a line of foresters and people who dealt with living growing plants, his poetry often dealing with light and growth, the whiskey on papa's breath being the portion of the Sun's radiation that makes the earth dizzy with life is a safe-bet symbol. That my own speculations are at least consistent with what is easily established make them a possibility if nothing more. But the child abuse interpretation is not consistent with the benevolent cosmos that allows life to flourish on earth, which the poem represents as business as usual.

And yet drugs do in fact alter perceptions, or they can. As stated by William Sargant in Battle for the Mind:33

The fact is that mystical experiences, like sudden conversions, do not always arise from purely religious influences and stresses; they can sometimes be induced by chemical means—such as, for instance, mescaline, ether, and laughing gas [emphasis added].
It is in fact curious, considering our topic, that one drug experience is sometimes called "biting clouds."
Koviak gets at the task of melting the opium. When he inhales this time, he feels the smoke invading his body, getting into the tissues. ... Time expands in the small room, opening like a door on infinite possibilities. ¶ ... Everything is better now. He wants to see golden streams of light; and the thought itself is enough for him to see them, or think he sees them. Is he seeing the thought? Never mind ...

"So now you are biting clouds," Li says lazily.

Koviak reaches out for the new pipe offered by the grinning proprietor. Biting clouds. Exactly what it is.34

Having stated my reservation about the drug aspect of the poem's interpretation, I now point out that it is nevertheless not a reach to get there. Drug/alcohol abuse does tend to run in families and Papa had whiskey on his breath.
The use of alcohol weakens the will, not only in the individual who partakes of it, but in his children and grandchildren, and many generations following. It has been estimated by those who have studied this subject carefully, that the use of alcohol from generation to generation through the centuries is one of the principle causes for this weakness in the human will that we find to be almost universal. ... Nearly every nation, as far back in history as we can go, has been using alcohol in some form or other, and ... its weakening effect upon the will is transmissible from one generation to another."35
It is supposition, true, but his papa used alcohol, it does sometimes run in families, and there were drugs available at his location. So it's not that much of a reach either.

Shades of Surrealism

Theodore Roethke published "My Papa's Waltz" in, let's see, 1942. From the 1920s on and still going we have the surrealism influence on art.

The Surrealists searched for a way to allow the dark side to prevail. This philosophy was a fertile breeding ground for the likes of André Breton (1896-1966), who believed in the supremacy of poetry and loathed the generation whose values had led to the slaughters of the war. He thus became a natural leader for the surrealists.

... One patient particularly impressed Breton—a young man who had experienced trench warfare and been driven to the illusion of invulnerability. The young man lived in parallel worlds. He would stand on the parapet of a trench during bombardment, pointing to explosions with his finger, believing that the corpses were dummies, the wounds greasepaint, the shells blanks, and the whole war a sham played out by actors.36

Perhaps it is possible that Roethke was influenced by the surrealist movement in general and by Breton in particular. The dark side prevails in a whiskey induced dance. Poetry holds supremacy over science. And the young man's trouping about the battlefield is paralleled by the boy's waltz in the kitchen to the beat of a hand on his head, with pans crashing to the floor. Or as another example take
Artist Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), an Italian born in Munich and educated in Athens, succeeded in linking Romantic art and Surrealism. His paintings directly addressed Rimbaud's exhortation that the artist make himself a "seer" by attaining a hallucinatory state in order to plumb the depths of the unknown."36
Was Roethke a kind of seer plumbing the depths of the unknown in a hallucinatory state? It's worth considering. Let's return to Joseph.

The story of Joseph is or was well known, and the envy between him and his brothers struck a chord in the poet related to the developing encroachment of science on man's thinking and expression. That combination gave us "My Papa's Waltz." Joseph's coat of many colors, well, isn't that a spectrum? Many colors. One element in particular of that spectrum, the "whiskey on papa's breath," ionized the death molecule NO. Remember what Joseph's brothers did. (Genesis 37:19-20) "And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams." Not only is a death sentence first given, but the brothers pitted their forensic science (see vs. 31-32) against Joseph's imagination (dreams).

What is the next step? They sold him into bondage. Joseph was first sold to a company of Midianites who in turn sold him to some Ishmaelites going to Egypt who there sold him to Potiphar an officer of Pharaoh. The bonding somewhere along the way of an extra N atom to make nitrous oxide produced that exhilarating experience, and Joseph got exalted to second in command under Pharaoh after interpreting his dreams.

Now, come those brothers down to Egypt in the famine to buy corn from the ruler, and Joseph has them waltzing in circles. He questions them. He sells them the corn. Then he plants their money purses and his cup on their pack animals, intercepts them, brings them back, accuses them of theft, and keeps a brother as security until they return with the youngest brother to prove their story. The brothers go back home, fetch the youngest, buy some more corn, and head on home again. Joseph plants his cup and their purses again, intercepts them, and then threatens to keep the youngest to the further grief of their father. They don't recognize Joseph. They've been dancing around in circles. Likewise Roethke's use of symbols at the beginning of "My Papa's Waltz" has that circular course we saw.

The really telling part is (Genesis 42:7-8) "And Joseph saw his brethren, and he knew them, but made himself strange unto them, and spake roughly unto them; ... And Joseph knew his brethren, but they knew not him." Now, isn't the poem "My Papa's Waltz" what we might called rough hewn? I mean, it's strange and it grates on our sensibilities, but we perceive an underlying method to the madness.

Another telling point is when Joseph (still incognito) dines with his brethren. (Genesis 43:33) "And they sat before him, the first-born according to his birthright, and the youngest according to his youth: and the men marveled one at another." This is expanded on in (Jasher LIII:11-14a) "And Joseph had a cup from which he drank, and it was of silver beautifully inlaid with onyx stones and bdellium, and Joseph struck the cup in the sight of his brethren whilst they were sitting to eat with him. And Joseph said unto the men, I know by this cup that Reuben the first born, Simeon and Levi and Judah, Issachar and Zebulun are children from one mother, seat yourselves to eat according to your births. And he also placed the others according to their births, and he said, I know that this your youngest brother has no brother, and I, like him, have no brother, he shall therefore sit down to eat with me. And Benjamin went up before Joseph and sat upon the throne, and the men beheld the acts of Joseph, and they were astonished at them." The brothers knew their place within their own family, but how does this stranger in Egypt know it all? He dings his cup and divines the correct seating order. Likewise, scientists know the workings of sun, earth, and moon, but how does this poet Roethke just have a bell ring in his head and get it all in the right order?

The funny thing, you know, is that Joseph spoke through an interpreter to his brethren before he revealed himself to them, although he spoke Hebrew perfectly well. We get the impression from Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" that we are dealing with a rube here, but I'd say the poet is very intelligent and is having us on as there is nothing wrong with his science, but he has couched its expression in a most earthy language. His poem "Root Cellar" displays a detailed horticultural knowledge. I have the suspicion there's a lot going on behind the veneer of earthiness in "My Papa's Waltz." Let's look at the rest.

The next verse has pans falling off the kitchen shelf and "My mother's countenance/Could not unfrown itself." Okay, the earth romps round the sun in a planetary system, round and round and round and round. Eventually some rocks slip out of the asteroid belt and fall down on us. They give the moon its visage, this moon being the mother whose face never changes. The moon always keeps her same face towards us, and it is this influence of the moon which is just right to stabilize the rotation of the earth.

Why does Roethke use that precise expression for a mother's frown? Let's compare unfrown to a similar expression: "Earlier he had stood at the folding table, listened to the others discussing whether to give up the search tonight or tomorrow. He had stood there spinning his spoon around and around in his coffee, not turning back to them, not listening. The milk will not unstir. Everything is falling apart." 37 The milk not being able to unstir, the mother's face unable to unfrown, both graphically depict chaos. As the above link explains, tidal forces in play as the moon goes round and round the earth eventually cause it to display only the same face to the earth all the time. This cannot be undone, no more can one unstir the cream. It gets stirred round and round and then the coffee turns brown from black, and as the duo waltzes round the kitchen the corners of mom's mouth turn down and stay that way, set.

Just as the moon stabilizes any tendency for the earth to wobble, the (frowning) mother exerts a stabilizing influence on the family. She prevents it from becoming too harsh just as cream moderates the flavor of java. In this process milk turns quite sour, as did mom.

I read in the paper where a woman driving in Washington saw a light in the sky getting closer and closer. She slammed on the brakes when it was coming right at her, and a meteor the size of a house splashed into the river. "Sounds messy," which is why a tidy housekeeper would frown, but it is the delight of scientists studying chaos theory. To use their metaphor, weather cannot be accurately predicted more than about five days in advance because small changes in initial conditions have an enormous impact on the larger system: A butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can result in a typhoon hitting India. Now think of all those random meteors hitting the earth. I am not being facetious. Metal ions from meteors are instrumental in forming sporadic concentrations of ion clouds in the E region of the ionosphere in mid-latitudes, especially around the equinox.38

metalic ion layer fomration process on earth

Meteors were necessary for life to exist on Earth. "During the solar system's youth, … an enormous abundance of asteroids, comets, rocks, and dust … pelted the Earth with great frequency and intensity … provid[ing] fresh supplies of water to replace that lost to outer space. They also salted Earth's surface with valuable mineral deposits … for the maximum benefit of mankind."39

As illustrated these metal ions derived from meteor impact have enabled me to communicate on the ten and six meter amateur radio bands with hams in other states beyond the line of sight whom I could not have contacted otherwise. Note 1) from the diagram the influence of lunar tidal forces in these formations, while the moon is part of the same stanza as the meteors.

The story of Joseph culminates in his whole family moving to Egypt where they grew in number until the time of their deliverance from the slavery they ended up in. They were delivered by great signs from the hand of Moses, mighty disruptions in the Egyptians' daily lives which could be symbolized by the pans falling from the kitchen shelf. Works for me.

And the mother's face that could not unfrown itself? Why, that's Pharaoh's heart that could not unharden itself as he watched the deliverance of the Hebrews.

The next verse gives us papa's hand with one "battered knuckle" and the boy's ear scraping a buckle at each missed step. That flaw on one knuckle of a hand corresponds to the sunspots that show up in an eleven year cycle—the approximate number of knuckles on the fingers of one hand. The radiation associated with these storms on the sun produces some significant and sometimes peculiar effects on earth. The ear crossing the buckle at a missed beat would represent the missed light during a solar eclipse when the moon crosses in front of the sun.

The next verse has papa beating time with a dirt-caked hand on his boy's head, then waltzing the clinging boy off to bed. Now, the computer-simulated orbits followed precise equations and papa's waltz followed the beats tapped out on his kid's head. The one is crude and the other sophisticated, right? But those orbital equations are based on the mathematical model of gravity which Newton discovered by an apple falling on his head.40 Thus the white collar man and working man spending time with their kids are on the same level. However refined a scientific theory, it must first be revealed to the scientist, sometimes in a most mundane way. The music of the universe has to hit him on the head.

Specifically, in "My Papa's Waltz" the hand beating time was caked with dirt, and it is the Earth that presents its geography to face the sun, day after day, beat after beat, as it rotates on its axis.

Our galaxy—maybe all galaxies—is a hot and forbidding place. There is only a narrow habitable zone in it where a solar system could support life, and the same could be said for an orbit within a solar system, or for that matter, a galactic place within a cluster of galaxies. The Earth is situated just right, at the fringes, "Still clinging to your shirt." "While Earth's location is not geographically central to the solar system, galaxy, galaxy cluster, or galaxy supercluster, it deserves the description 'spectacularly favored for life.' … ¶"Earth resides in a very dark place. In fact Earth's solar system resides in the darkest part of the Milky Way Galaxy's life-habitable zone. And the Milky Way resides in the darkest life-habitable region of its galaxy cluster, which occupies the darkest life-habitable region of its supercluster of galaxies."41 Being securely tucked away in bed for the night is the poetic way to express this secure position.

The Israelites were eventually led to the Promised Land, "clinging to your shirt" following the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day.

Are we humans trapped in a predetermined universe? "By convention and society, of course. By laws, certainly." Nevertheless, the scientist sees that we still have freedom, or at least the illusion of it. Was papa outside the bounds of the law concerning child abuse? Nothing in the poem indicates such, rather it is the feminists who do not grasp the freedom (real or illusory) they may have within the confines of "convention and society" by which the man is the head of the house. Rather than attacking papa, we should all be exploring, through literature, the mysteries of human existence on our little world.

Cross's "presence overwhelmed everything else," yet "he never once through the evening had shown impatience." Was papa domineering? Who is to say? For all a man's dominate presence, he is not considered domineering if he is never impatient with others. Papa did not give up on his kid while he was learning, nor did he shoo him off to bed too soon. If he were domineering to his family we are not shown that in the poem.

About the only concession we can make to a child abuse interpretation, given the astronomical symbols in the poem, is from, of all places, the very end of the Old Testament where God says, (Malachi 4:4-6) "Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse." Perhaps if we don't listen to God's message or his messengers, and we fail to find family harmony, the disharmony will affect the cosmos and we'll no longer have a benign Sun just as we'd left ourselves with abusive fathers. But the cosmos are working just fine in "My Papa's Waltz," as was his family.

We can also consider Buddha's teaching on the reality of human life, where he lists five evils in the world. The "Second [being] there is the lack of a clear demarcation between the rights of a father and a son; between an elder brother and a younger; between a husband and a wife; between a senior relative and a younger; on every occasion each one desires to be the highest and to profit off the others. They cheat each other, there is a deception and a lack of sincerity."42 In "My Papa's Waltz" neither husband nor wife is seen crossing the line to abuse the other. The mom is a good example how not to be a bitchy wife as she bites her tongue and doesn't nag or scold even in her disapproval, and the father is a good dad, a good papa, in that he doesn't harm his son when intoxicated but still shows him attention, a waltz.

In summary "My Papa's Waltz" resembles the verses of Kabir, reputed to "have four different senses — illusion, spirit, intellect and the exoteric doctrine of the Vedas."43 The illusion derives from an experience on laughing gas, where first is the inhalation of vapors that make one dizzy parallels "the whiskey on your breath" making a small boy dizzy
followed by the exhilaration of a laughing gas high parallels a mad romp under the baleful gaze of mom,
and finally the passing out from the drug parallels being waltzed off to bed.

The spirit is the spirit of camaraderie between father and son, having a jolly good time—probably the theme with the most play in any commentary.

Intellect is a taunt at the scientist in that the poet expresses some of the operations of the solar system in symbols that subvert the need for scientific lingo.

The exoteric doctrine of the Vedas parallels the Jewish/Christian scriptures (Genesis) containing symbols used in the story of Joseph's coat of many colors given him by a loving father. The father in this poem thus shows love, not abuse.

Sincerely Yours,
Earl Gosnell
Poet Laureate of Longfellow, Colorado




Letter 1 — Introduces a broader perspective.

Letter 3 — comparison with child abuse literature

guestbook log)
View My Guestbook
Sign My Guestbook


1. Walker Percy, "The Loss of Creature" reprinted from a journal to Walker Percy, The message in the Bottle (New York: Picador, 2000) pp. 56-8. Back to text return

2. Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, Collector's Library—2004), p. 259. Back to document back

3. W.L. Ripley, Storm Front (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1995) p. 89. Back to text return

4. Gerald Hammond, Twice Bitten (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999) p. 88. Back to document back

5. Theodore Weesner, Novemberfest (New York: Alfre A. Knopf, 1994), pp. 105f. Back to document back

6. Reader's Digest, Illustrated Dictionary of Bible Life & Times (Pleasantville, 1997) p. 78. Back to text return

7. Werner Keller, translated by William Neil, The Bible as History (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1964) pp. 65-6, 212. Back to document back

8. Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers Translated from the German by H.T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 1948) pp. 322-24. Back to documett return

9. Thomas Mann, Joseph in Egypt, Volume One, Originally published as Joseph und Seine Brüder, Der dritte Roman , Joseph in Ägypten © 1936 by Bermann-Fischer Verlag Ges. m.b.h., Vienna, (New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 1938) p. 181. Back to documett return

10. Thomas Mann, Joseph in Egypt, Volume One, (New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 1938)Ibid., p. 156. Back to documett return

11. Thomas Mann, Joseph in Egypt, Volume One, (New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 1938)Ibid., pp. 172f. Back to documett return

12. Thomas Mann, Joseph in Egypt, Volume One, (New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 1938)Ibid., pp. 157, 158, 159, 160, 161. Back to documett return

13. Thomas Mann, Joseph in Egypt, Volume One, (New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 1938)Ibid., pp. 313f, 319. Back to documett return

14. Felice Picano, The Book of Lies (Los Angeles: Alyson Books, Nov., 1999) pp. 322f.
Back to document return

15. Thomas Mann, Joseph in Egypt, Volume One, (New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 1938) pp. 600f. Back to documett return

16. Garfield Reeves-Stevens, Dark Matter (New York: Doubleday, Oct., 1990 1st ed.) pp. 211-2. Back to document return

17. Kate Wilhelm, Death Qualified (Ontario: MIRA Books, 1991) pp. 167f, 179f. Back to document return

18. Leonard Smith, Chaos: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) pp. xii-xiii.
Back to document return

19. Alan Russell, Multiple Wounds (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) p. 52. Back to document return

20. "The Harivansa," an appendix to the "Mahabharata," from the French translation of Alexandre Langlois, taken from his chapter 217, "Interruption du Sacrifice de Dakcha". Quoted in Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, Collector's Library—2004), p. 297. Back to document return

21. Edgar Allen Poe, "Sonnet—To Science," The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1902) p. 22. Back to document return

22. Carl Luetzelschwab, "The Ionosphere: How Does It Form?" Oct., 2005, WorldRadio, pp. 50f. © 2005, Used by permission. Back to document return

23. Edited with translations, by Thomas Kinsella, The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) p. 165. Back to document return

24. Confucius, Doctrine of the Mean, Zhong Yong, quoted in Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, Collector's Library—2004), p. 143. Back to document return

25. Kevin D. Mitnick, William L. Simon, The Art of Intrusion (Wiley Publishing, 2005) p. 106. Back to document return

26. Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1977) p. 196. Back to document back

27. Hugh Ross, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008) p. 48. Back to document return

28. C.F. Main & Peter J. Seng, Poems (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 4th ed.) pp. 279f. Back to document return

29. George F. Willison, Saints and Strangers (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1945) pp. 131, 149, 171. Back to document return

30. Craig Winn & Ken Power, Tea with Terrorists (Charlottesville: CricketSong Books, 2002) p. 65. Back to document return

31. Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw, Life Extension (New York: Warner Books, 1983) pp. 147, 244. Back to document return

32. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books,1997) pp. 85-6. Back to document return

33. William Sargant, Battle for the Mind (Cambridge: Malor Books, 1997) ISBN 1-883536-06-5, p. 99. Back to document return

34. Malcolm Bosse, The Warlord (New York: Bantam Books, June, 1984), pp. 194-5. Back to document return

35. C.D. Larson, Your Forces and How to Use Them (Essex: L.N. Fowler & Co. LTD, 1986) p. 163. Back to document return

36. John W. Whitehead, Grasping for the Wind (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001) pp. 101-2. Back to document back

37. James Bradley, Wrack (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1999) p. 72. Back to document return

38. See "Sporadic E—A Mystery Solved?" Oct., Nov., 1997, QST Figure 4 is from Ken Neubeck, "A Review of the Sporadic-E Phenomenom," Worldradio, October, 2006, pages 6-10. Used by permsission. Back to document return

39. Hugh Ross, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008) pp. 49f. Back to document return

40. If it isn't historically certain an apple landed on his head, at least it's so in literature. Back to document return

41. Hugh Ross, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008) pp. 72, 79f. Back to document return

42. Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, The Teaching of Buddha (Tokyo: Toppan Printing Co., 1990) p. 192. Used by permission. Back to document return

43. Garcin de Tassy, Histoty of Hindu Literature, quoted in Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, Collector's Library—2004), p. 342. Back to document return


Earl Gosnell
1950 Franklin Bv., Box 15
Eugene, OR 97403


Copyright © 1998, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 Earl S. Gosnell III Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.

Permission is hereby granted to use the portions original to this paper—with credit given, of course—in intellectually honest non-profit educational material. The material I myself have quoted has its own copyright in most cases, which I cannot speak for but have used here under the fair use doctrine.

I have used material from a number of sources for teaching, comment and illustration in this nonprofit teaching endeavor. The sources are included at the end in notes. Such uses must be judged on individual merit, of course, so I cannot say how other uses of the same material might fare. Theodore Roethke, My Papa's Waltz is copyright © 1942, Hearst Magazines, Inc.

Any particular questions or requests for permissions may be addressed to me, the author.

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional    Valid CSS!

Web page problems?