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Analysis of "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Poet Robert Hayden (1913–80)

Poet Robert Hayden (1913–80)

Robert Hayden: "Those Winter Sundays"

"Those Winter Sundays" is a short poem about a childhood memory. The speaker recalls the actions of a father who each Sunday rises early to dutifully make a fire and polish the good shoes for his son.

It's only later on in life that the child becomes aware of the sacrifice his father, a hard-working parent, made.

Robert Hayden was brought up by foster parents following the bust-up of his real mother and father, so perhaps the poem is an attempt to re-capture some part of a traumatic childhood.

'My poetry is a way of coming to grips with reality . . . a way of discovery and definition. It is a way of solving for the unknowns.' Hayden said.

And in each stanza, there are hints of a cold, distant relationship between father and son which is never really reconciled. The speaker is quite helpless in this questioning present, conditioned by the fears from past household experiences.

This free verse poem has only 14 lines and is split into three stanzas, each with a poignancy that builds up to the final two lines.

"Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Analysis of "Those Winter Sundays"

This poem could be an extract from a diary, told to someone close, perhaps another family member of a future generation. The speaker gives us an intimate insight into just what Sunday mornings were like for him as a child. Issues surface that the speaker wasn't aware of back in the day.

  • Split into three stanzas, without end rhyme and lacking a consistent rhythm—some lines are iambic, others a mix of iambic, trochaic and anapaestic—there is no guiding beat; perhaps intended.
  • Here we have a reflective tone of voice, looking back, trying to make sense of all that was going on, all that had happened. Over a period of time, probably years, the speaker gains some perspective on the role of his father, but there are still loose ends to tie up.
  • Note the consonance, strong and regular sounds of the harsh letter k together with the hard c in words such as clothes, blueblack cold, cracked, ached, weekday, banked, thanked. These clash and contrast with gentle sounding words such as father, weather, too, ever, him.

This combination, together with unusual syntax and a dash of alliteration (weekday weather, banked fires blaze), tends to create a mix of music not altogether harmonious, again a reflection of the atmosphere within the home.

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Further Analysis

So the main theme of the poem is that of parental sacrifice and duty. Do these amount to love? Even if the relationship isn't ideal, even if the father isn't related by blood, there's still a bond between the two individuals. The only thing is, it takes years for this bond to be acknowledged by the child.

The speaker's ignorance is reflected in the penultimate line:

What did I know, what did I know

of love's austere and lonely offices?

Picture the child in that rather forbidding household as the father, given no word of thanks, prepares his shoes for Sunday church. The language conveys the intense atmosphere of that blueblack cold—austere brings with it seriousness, a strict kind of poverty, whilst lonely offices suggest that these parental acts were more a duty than a kindness.

This poem, in just five sentences, neatly illustrates the complex nature of a father-son relationship. The use of the word father is more formal (papa or pop or dad or daddy would arguably have undermined the gravitas) and ties in with the idea of a selfless Christian father figure (Christ), suffering for the sake of others.

The father has his own cross to bear. After a long working week, his cracked hands that ached now tend to the life-affirming fire. The image is that of a tough manual worker who strives hard to make ends meet, who is a no-nonsense practical type bound to the sabbath duties on the one day of rest.

But where, we might ask, is the mother? She is absent. Where is the word home? Home doesn't exist? There is no sign of comfort in the speaker's personal narrative; there are only rooms that warm up gradually as the speaker wakes:

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,

Chronic means long-term and is derived from Chronos, a personification of Time in Greek mythology. Chronos is involved with the past eating up the future, wielding the classic harvest scythe, and suppressing joy.

There is no doubt the speaker in stanza two sees the father as a negative influence on life and is indifferent to him because he didn't know any better. Could be the father was aggressive, inducing fear into the house which influences the child and confuses the issues of love, regret and the reality of family relationships.


© 2016 Andrew Spacey

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