The whiskey on your breath Could make a small boy dizzy; But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans Slid from the kitchen shelf; My mother's countenance Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist Was battered on one knuckle; At every step you missed My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head With a palm caked hard by dirt, Then waltzed me off to bed Still clinging to your shirt.
(1948) Roethke expresses his resentment for his father, a drunken brute with dirty hands and a whiskey breath who careless hurt the child’s ear and manhandled him. We are meant to sympathize with the mother, and disapprove of the father’s clumsy disordering of the kitchen. The fact that the child hangs on like death suggests that something terrible will happen if he doesn’t play along, and the use of the words beat and battered are calculated to bring to mind images of physical abuse. The rollicking rhythms of the poem, the playfulness of a rime like dizzy with easy, the joyful suggestions of the words, waltzing and romped, all suggest that the speaker’s attitude toward his father is affectionate, and that this is a happy memory. There is comedy in the scene with kitchen pans falling down, the mother looking disapprovingly on the side, and the father happily using his son’s head for a drum. At the end of the poem the boy is still clinging with persistent love Adapted from Eagleton, “How to Read a Poem”
Reading #1 The last line is a cry of (perhaps slightly manic) triumph: the lover has deliberately tempted God by this dreadful deed into revealing himself, and God has remained silent. So perhaps the whole grisly murder was an experiment in demonstrating the truth of aetheism. Robert Browning (1812 – 1889) Excerpt from PORPHYRIA’S LOVER . . . I found A thing to do, and all her hair In one long yellow string I wound Three times her little throat around, And strangled her . . . And thus we sit together now, And all night long we have not stirred, And yet God has not said a word!
(1836) Reading #3 The last line is spoken in admiration and amazement. The line reveals that the “she” is an incarnation of God with whom the speaker sits “all night long”, not stirring. In all this time, He/She has not spoken. In other words, God is unwilling to break character, even though God could easily still “wake” up after having been strangled. The speaker is marveling at God’s steadfastness Reading #2 The last line is spoken in a tone of sullen resentment. The speaker is not a jubilant atheist but a would-be believer, who has sacrificed his lover in an attempt to force God into revealing his hand, and is now bitterly downcast by the Almighty’s silence. He has, so to speak, lost his Maker and his mistress at the same time, and all for nothing. Adapted from Eagleton, “How to Read a Poem”