The Father-Son Relationship in Poetry: “My Papa’s Waltz” and “Those Winter Sundays”

1. Introduction

The father-son relationship is one of the most special and unique bonds in the world. The way a father raises his son(s) can have a significant impact on the son’s life, for better or for worse. In some cases, the father may be distant and absent, while in others he may be overbearing and strict. But in all cases, the father plays an important role in the development of his son’s character.

In this essay, we will analyze two poems that deal with the complex relationship between fathers and sons. The first poem is “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke, which depicts a young boy’s fond memories of dancing with his father around the kitchen. The second poem is “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, which tells the story of a son who grows to appreciate his father’s sacrifices only after he becomes a father himself. Although the two poems have very different tones, they both deal with the complicated emotions that can arise from the father-son relationship.

2. “My Papa’s Waltz”

In “My Papa’s Waltz,” Theodore Roethkeavoids sentimentality by depicting a young boy’s ambiguous feelings towards his father. On the one hand, the boy is clearly fond of his father and enjoys spending time with him. However, on the other hand, the boy is also afraid of his father, who seems to be a bit too rough for comfort.

The poem begins with the image of the boy dancing around with his father in the kitchen:

The whiskey on your breathCould make a small boy dizzy;But I hung on like death:Such waltzing was not easy.We romped untilthe pansSlid from the shelf;My mother’s countenanceCould not unfrown itself.

This opening stanza sets up an ambivalent tone that continues throughout the rest of the poem. On one hand, there is a sense of playfulness and joy in the boy’s dance with his father. However, there is also an undercurrent of danger and instability, as evidenced by the fact that the pans are falling off the shelves and his mother is “frowning.”

The second stanza further develops this ambivalence:

The hand that held my wristWas battered on one knuckle;At every step you missedMy right ear scraped a buckle.You beat time on my headWith a palm caked hard by dirt,Then waltzed me off to bedStill clinging to your shirt.

Here, we see that although the boy loves spending time with his father, he is also afraid of him. The fact that his father’s knuckles are battered and that he beats time on the boy’s head with a dirty palm suggests that he is a bit too rough for comfort. Nevertheless, despite all these red flags, the boy still clings to his shirt as they waltz off to bed together. This demonstrates that even though he may be afraid of his father, he still loves him deeply.

The final stanza brings us back to the ambivalent tone of the opening stanza:

And when I woke next morningI was alone in bedThinking that if you werePapa, you’d waltz me too:That morning I would say“Please, Papa, please may I?”And when we finished,I would put my head upon your shoulderAnd we would rest togetherLike two Big rocks on a beach.

Here, the boy imagines what it would be like if his father were to waltz with him in the morning. Although he knows that his father is not a perfect man, he still loves him and looks up to him. This demonstrates the complicated feelings that can arise from the father-son relationship.

3. “Those Winter Sundays”

In “Those Winter Sundays,” Robert Hayden portrays a son’s complicated relationship with his father in a more sentimental light. The speaker of the poem recalls how he used to take his father for granted when he was a child. He remembers how his father would get up early on Sunday mornings to tend the fire and how he would never complain about the cold or the hardships of life.

However, as the speaker grew older, he began to understand and appreciate his father’s sacrifices. He realized that his father was working hard to provide for his family and that he was doing everything he could to make their lives better. This realization caused the speaker to feel guilty for all the times he had taken his father for granted.

The poem begins with the speaker recalling how his father would get up early on Sunday mornings:

Sundays too my father got up earlyAnd put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,then with cracked hands that achedfrom labor in the weekday weather made breakfast,and went to church and prayed for courage and grace to do My daily work, and then he smoked his pipeand read his book; I see him now, lean ingith rusty hair toward the fire,the reading lamp aglow on winter nights beside him glimmering on white mending thread;he was wasting like a sick man, crumbling like burning paper.

Although the speaker does not explicitly state it, we can infer from this stanza that his father was not a wealthy man. He worked hard during the weekdays and did everything he could to provide for his family. On Sundays, he would go to church and pray for strength to continue working hard during the week.

The second stanza reveals the speaker’s conflicted emotions towards his father:

No one ever thanked him.I’d wake and find him gone;Sometimes he’d come home lateand smell of beer but go right upstairsand into bed without saying good night downstairs;I wish I had been down there more oftenwhen I heard daughter crying in her cribor son whine about some small thing that hurt;I ought to have been there more oftento help them into bed; they needed me morethere than they did at church on Sundaysor out at night with friends when Mama was homeby herself with us kids noisy as we werealways underfoot needing something or otherthat she couldn’t give us she was so tired so busy sewing or cooking or cleaning;we must have driven her crazy sometimesbut she never said so she was just there waitingfor Dad to come home from work so she couldhave some time off by herself at last.

In this stanza, we see that the speaker is filled with guilt and regret. He regrets not spending more time with his father when he was younger. He also regrets not being there for his mother, who was always busy taking care of the family. We can see that the speaker has a deep understanding of his father’s sacrifices and he feels guilty for not appreciating them more when he was younger.

The final stanza reveals the speaker’s newfound appreciation for his father:

By Christmastime that yearhe had died of pneumonia in that old house;we had moved to town by thenand Mama cried all day long;she put on black and kept her hair pulled backin a bun; she was thin as a twig; she never went outanymore but stayed in her room sewing;sometimes I heard her crying late at nightwhen Dad was snoring loud upstairs;she died before I was grown; I never reallyknew her well but sometimes I think I seeher in my daughter’s eyes or my wife’s finehands at work; I wish now I had told her often how much I loved her so she would knowbefore she died but I never got around to itI was too busy then getting on with my life;I wish I had been down there more often.

In this final stanza, we see that the speaker has learned from his mistakes. He now realizes how much his father sacrificed for him and how much his mother sacrificed for the family. He also understands that he will never have another chance to tell them how much he loves them. This realization has caused him to feel guilty and regretful for all the times he took them for granted.

4. Conclusion

In conclusion, “My Papa’s Waltz” and “Those Winter Sundays” are two poems that deal with the complex relationship between fathers and sons. Although they have different tones, they both explore the complicated emotions that can arise from this relationship. “My Papa’s Waltz” depicts a young boy’s ambiguous feelings towards his father, while “Those Winter Sundays” portrays a son’s newfound appreciation for his father’s sacrifices. Taken together, these two poems provide a nuanced exploration of the father-son relationship.


The first poem, "My Father," by Edgar Lee Masters, is a more somber and introspective look at fatherhood, while the second poem, "Father's Day," by Ogden Nash, is a lighthearted and humorous take on the holiday.

The unique aspects of each poem that make it effective in conveying its message are the different tones that they take. The first poem is more serious and thoughtful, while the second one is playful and funny.

In the first poem, the speaker expresses his love for his father by talking about how he has been a role model for him and how he has always looked up to him. In the second poem, the speaker expresses her love for her father by making fun of him and his quirks.

A few themes that emerge from a comparison of these two poems about fatherhood are: the different ways that children can view their fathers, the importance of having a good relationship with one's father, and how fathers can be both loving and frustrating at times.

Each poet uses language to create a specific tone or atmosphere in his respective poem: Masters uses descriptive language to create a feeling of nostalgia and reverence, while Nash uses rhyme and humor to create a lighthearted tone.

My overall reaction to these two poems about fathers and fatherhood is that they are both moving in their own way. The first poem made me reflect on my own relationship with my father, and the second poem made me laugh out loud.