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Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden

Introduction and Text of "Those Winter Sundays"

Robert Hayden's speaker in this nearly perfect poem, "Those Winter Sundays," happens to be a man reflecting on his attitude and behavior during his childhood. Specifically, the speaker is recalling and dramatizing an event involving his father which made the speaker realize that he should have treated his father with more love and respect.

Often when we look back at our childish ways, we regret our immature attitudes and behaviors. And often we will begin kicking ourselves, riddling ourselves with guilt and recrimination over our past sins. This speaker's well-balanced, mature attitude corrects that human tendency.

Those Winter Sundays

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?

Robert Hayden Reading His Poem

Commentary

"Those Winter Sundays" is an American (Innovative) sonnet, and it is one of the best poems written in the English language, particularly in the American vernacular.

First Stanza: The Plain Truth

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.

The speaker begins by stating a plain fact: that even on Sundays, the day when most folks are most apt to sleep in, the speaker's father still "got up early." After getting up early, the father put on his clothes in a very cold house and then started the fire in the stove that would heat the rooms to make it comfortable for others to rise and not have to suffer the cold that the father had done.

The speaker labels that kind of cold "blueblack." This description intensifies the cold into a biting, bitter sensation, which in turn intensifies the love and caring of the father, who was willing to endure such misery to make life warmer and easier for his loved ones. Despite having worked hard all week to the point of having to endure "cracked hands" from all his labor, the father unceasingly arose even on Sundays for the sake of his family's comfort.

The expression "made / banked fires blaze" indicates the custom of piling wood inside the wood-burning stove or fireplace to keep a low fire smoldering in order to render the "blaze" faster and easier in the morning when it was needed most.

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Hayden's freshness of language renders his poetry a dramatic masterpiece. The images build, dramatizing as well as reporting information, implying attitudes as well as stating them. The poet's skill has crafted a well-placed infusion of emotion, when he has his speaker blatantly claim, referring to the father, "No one ever thanked him. The speaker's remorse shines through; he wishes he had thanked his father. But alas, he did not; no one did, and all's the more pity for the omission.

Second Stanza: The Comforting Father

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,

Because of the father's loving care, the speaker could remain in his bed all warm and snug until the house was no longer filled with that "blueblack" cold but was all toasty warm from the father's efforts. After the speaker finally wakes up, he can hear the cold being vanquished from the house. He describes it as "splintering, breaking." Again, the poet has infused a marvelous description that intensifies the meaning and drama of this nearly perfect poem. What the speaker literally hears is his father breaking up wood, but to the speaker's child-ears, it would seem as though the cold were literally being cracked and broken.

After the father had warmed the house, he would summon his son to get up and get dressed. The speaker would comply though "slowly"; even though a child, he was always aware of the "chronic angers of that house." While the line, "fearing the chronic angers of that house," leaves open some unsettling possibilities for interpretation, some readers have unfairly and misguidedly assumed that those angers signal an abusive father. This interpretation makes no sense, however, when considered with the main thrust of the poem. The speaker would not likely focus on thanking the father, if the father had been an abuser.

The angers of the house more likely indicates that the house itself had other issues beside the morning cold, such as broken windows, leaky pipes, rodents, poorly functioning furniture, perhaps the floor-boards creaked or the roof leaked; after all the speaker does assign those angers to the "house," not to his father or any other resident of the house. When too much emphasis is placed on poet biography, the poet's meaning in his poems can suffer. One must always look first and foremost at the poem for its meaning, not at the biography of the poet.

Third Stanza: The Indifference of Youth

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?

In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker demonstrates that he now understands the sacrifices made by his father. The speaker undeniably feels shame that he spoke "indifferently" to this father. If he could just go back and correct that error, he would speak to his father with the love and devotion that the father deserved. Not only had the father "driven out the cold," but he had also polished the son's shoes. And these tokens of love become symbolic of all that the father must have done. It is likely that he also cooked breakfast of this son, drove him to church or school, or to wherever the son needed to go.

The speaker then offers his final remark: "What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?" Far from excusing his childhood behavior, the speaker is quite eloquently explaining it. He was just a kid. Of course, as a kid, he did not have the ability to recognize his father's selfless acts. Few of us as children would ever have that foresight. Because the speaker repeats the question of "what did I know," he emphasizes his childhood lack of awareness. He just did not know what it was like to be a parent, with all the responsibilities of taking care of children and a household, of going to work every day to keep that family fed, clothed, and warm.

If the speaker had known, he would have behaved differently—not "indifferently" to his parent. And it is with this awareness that the speaker offers a corrective to each of us who have experienced that same feeling of guilt. Why should we continue to wallow in guilt and recrimination when it is so simple? We just did not know any better! We could not have done otherwise. Now we do know better, and though we may continue to wish we had done better, we can drop abject guilt and get on with our lives.

This poem's spiritual level renders it the marvelous, nearly perfect poem that it is. The poet's skill in crafting a little drama filled with poignant memories that offer universal succor to readers elevates its stature to the near sublime, a rare event in 20th century, secular poetry, so heavily influenced by the postmodern tendency to anger without reason.

Robert Hayden—Commemorative Stamp

Robert Hayden—Commemorative Stamp

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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