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“My Papa’s Waltz” and “Porphyria’s Lover”: Sounds Show

In prose and verse, sound extensively contributes to indirect characterization: authors use sound devices to shape readers’ perception of characters and nuance characters’ descriptions. In this respect, such unlike texts as “My Papa’s Waltz” and “Porphyria’s Lover” is exemplary for investigating the connection between form (in this case, sound) and content. The poems concern unrelated subjects and belong to different eras and countries. On the surface, “My Papa’s Waltz” and “Porphyria’s Lover” appear incomparable. However, contrasting the poems’ acoustic structures reveals the potential of sound to deepen characterization. Sound characteristics influence the way readers perceive the texts, particularly variations in rhythm and rhyme as well as in assonance refine the characterization of the poem’s narrators.

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Iambic meters are among the most commonly used ones – a reader can find them in the verses of Shakespeare, Frost, Keats, and other English-language classics. Despite its habitualness, poets employ iamb to flesh out a gamma of situations and ideas. “My Papa’s Waltz” and “Porphyria’s Lover” both employ iambic meters. “My Papa’s Waltz” is written in iambic trimeter, as almost every line consists of three metrical feet. Roethke’s rhythm choice is far from accidental: ballroom waltz is composed of three steps, and waltz music commonly has three beats in a measure (Barillas, 2015). In this way, the poem’s rhythmic pattern mimics the measured and weighted steps of a father and his child dancing in a kitchen, which produces a pronounced auditory effect (Barillas, 2015). The effect depends not only on the regularity in the text’s meter but also on its inconsistencies. According to Barillas (2015), “variations from the dominant meter, metrical substitutions provide auditory embodiments of the dance as a sensory experience” (p.10). Roethke’s masterful use of iambic trimeter makes readers perceive a waltz’s orderliness weaved into the father’s drunk dancing movements.

Similarly, “Porphyria’s Lover” is composed in iambic tetrameter, but the meter’s characterization function is expressed in the rhythm’s regularity rather than in its variations. The meter in “Porphyria’s Lover” is consistent throughout the text; even when the narrator strangles his lover, he does it without breaking his speech’s pace (Phelan, 2020). This poem’s characteristic indicates that the murder was committed in cold blood. A break in rhythm would be logical when the narrator strangles Porphyria, but its absence is more powerful: the continuity of rhythm communicates the narrator’s mindset (Phelan, 2020). He is exceedingly mechanical and unfeeling in his atrocious deed (Phelan, 2020). The poem’s metrically consistent ending accentuates the character’s lack of regret, corroborated by his own words in the last stanza. Furthermore, the lack of metrical variations in the text of such considerable length makes the narrator’s speech sound monotonous. Browning’s tetrameter is somewhat slower to read than Roethke’s trimeter, yet it helps to convey the narrator’s manic state, as a sentiment of rush is still present in the lines. The combination of monotony, consistency in meter, and hastiness contributes to the narrator’s portrait as a cold-blooded strangler.

In contrast to Roethke’s use of meter, rhyme in “My Papa’s Waltz” does not have irregularities. The poem follows a standard rhyming scheme – ABAB. This 4-line rhyme pattern seems highly predictive and repetitive. Repetitiveness and regularity enhance the effectiveness of the sound use, further approximating the text to a waltz. Additionally, being simplistic, it suits a poem told from a child’s perspective or from an adult narrator’s perspective reminiscing about his childhood. A more elaborate rhyming scheme could make “My Papa’s Waltz” appear less authentic. For example, supplementary sophistication of coupled or chain rhyme would deprive the text of its sense of childishness. The awkwardness of rhyming “pans” and “countenance” that do not have sufficiently similar endings in lines five and seven also adds to the effect. Furthermore, Roethke’s style in this work reminds minimalistic poetry partially based on the rhyming scheme. Most importantly, the use of ABAB in “My Papa’s Waltz” helps to convey a feeling that it is narrated from a child’s viewpoint.

“Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Papa’s Waltz” share a similar rhyming scheme. Yet, as the former is written in cinquain, the text has an extra line, creating an ABABB pattern. This additional line distinguishes its rhyming scheme, subverting the initial expectation that the text would follow ABAB, which feels more familiar and intuitive (Amorak & Kaneko, 2018). The extra rhyme prepares readers for an unexpected turn of events later in the poem. The pattern is uneven and unbalanced, reflecting the narrator’s psychological state – psychotic and manic despite his calmness perceivable in the regularity of the poem’s meter. ABABB pattern also prolongs each five-line section and decelerates the text’s pace, making it appear like the narrator is not ready to let go of the moment. Thus, the rhyming scheme that Browning uses mirrors the narrator’s obsession.

Meter, rhythm, and rhyme are not the only sound devices contributing to the characterization of the poems. Roethke uses consonance to make his text even more sensory and nuance the characters’ relationships. For instance, the excessive use of plosives accentuates the roughness of the father’s treatment. The use of plosive consonants also enhances the readers’ auditory experience: the sounds are efficient in recreating the described event’s harshness and violence. The father uses his son’s head to beat the waltz’s rhythm with his palm. This action is magnified by repeating /p/, /b/, and /d/ in “You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt” (Roethke, 13-14, n.d.). The narrator indirectly characterizes his father’s presence as intense, uncomforting, and disconcerting. Nevertheless, the father’s drunken intentions seem more playful than threatening, as the poem ends with a tender moment, as the father takes his son to the bed. Although nothing is said directly about the character’s relationship, plosives convey its violent aspect.

Comparable to “My Papa’s Waltz,” different assonance types enhance characterization in “Porphyria’s Lover” as Browning uses consonance and alliteration with abundance in the text. In this regard, the use of /ai/ diphthong appears particularly suggestive and revelatory. Assonance with this sound can be found in “That moment she was mine, mine, fair, / Perfectly pure and good: I found” (Browning, 35-36, n.d.). Although the narrator’s reiteration of “mine” already suggests that his intention is to possess, the use of /ai/ underscores it and gives subtlety. In addition to being pathologically possessive, the /ai/ reveals his painful egocentrism: the narrator focuses on himself even when he describes Porphyria. Regarding consonance, Browning uses it less frequently than assonance, but it still helps characterization. For instance, /t/ appears several times in the third line. As a plosive consonant, it foreshadows the forthcoming explosion of violence (Nilanko, 2018). In the line, the wind’s cruelty mirrors the cruelty of the narrator, and /t/ emphasizes this (Nilanko, 2018). Overall, assonance in the poem helps disclose the narrator’s egoism and possessiveness.

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In this way, the sound structure (meter, rhyme, and assonance) in “My Papa’s Waltz” and “Porphyria’s Lover” contains lessons on how a text’s form contributes to its content. Notably, the two analyzed poems show how consistency and irregularities in meter can contribute to characterization. While Roethke uses variations in meter to communicate the father’s drunkenness and son’s fear, the stability of rhythm that Browning employs shows resolution and a complete absence of regret (Barillas, 2015; Phelan, 2020). The slight difference in the poems’ rhyming scheme also impacts the text’s perception and enhances indirect characterization. Although ABAB and ABABB patterns are almost identical, they differently impact readers’ perceptions in combination with other texts’ aspects. In addition, Roethke’s and Browning’s use of assonance enriches readers’ auditory experience and helps direct their attention. In “My Papa’s Waltz,” consonance accentuates violence, and while in “Porphyria’s Lover,” this type of assonance serves a similar purpose, alliteration in it reveals the narrator’s motives. Roethke and Browning use sound in the two poems as a powerful instrument.

In conclusion, despite their dissimilarity, “My Papa’s Waltz” and “Porphyria’s Lover” demonstrate the potential of sound structures to refine characterization. In the texts, rhythm, rhyme, and assonance not only contribute to the poems’ sound richness but also enhance readers’ perception of the narrators and the relationships between characters. In “My Papa’s Waltz,” sound structure simultaneously underscores the violence in the father-son relationship and brings gentleness to it by making the text resemble a waltz. In “Porphyria’s Lover,” meter, rhyme, and assonance disclose the narrator’s egocentrism, obsession, and possessiveness and establish him as a cold-blooded murderer ultimately.


Amorak, H. W, & Kaneko, T. W. (2018). Poetry: A writers’ guide and anthology texts. Bloomsbury.

Barillas, W. (2015). Meter in Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz.” The Explicator, 73(1), 9–12.

Browning, R. (n.d.). ” Porphyria’s lover.” Poetry Foundation, Web.

Nilanko, M. (2018). Poetic plethora: An annotated anthology of select Victorian and modern poems. Educreation.

Phelan, J. (2020). Literature and understanding: The value of a close reading of literary texts. Routledge.

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Roethke, T. (n.d.). “My papa’s waltz.” Poetry Foundation, Web.

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