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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

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.

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

Life Sketch of Robert Hayden

Born Asa Bundy Sheffey on August 4, 1913, in Detroit, Michigan, to Ruth and Asa Sheffey, Robert Hayden spent his tumultuous childhood with a foster family headed by Sue Ellen Westerfield and William Hayden, in the lower class neighborhood called ironically, Paradise Valley. Hayden's parents had separated before his birth.

Hayden was physically small and had poor vision; thus being precluded from sports, he spent his time reading and pursuing literary studies. His social isolation thus led to his career as a poet and professor. He attended Detroit City College (later renamed Wayne State University), and after spending two years with the Federal Writers' Project, he returned to higher education at the University of Michigan to finish his Masters Degree. At Michigan, he studied with W. H. Auden, whose influence can be seen in Hayden's use of poetic form and technique.

After graduation with the M.A. degree, Hayden began teaching at the University of Michigan, later taking a teaching position at Fist University in Nashville, where he stayed for twenty-three years. He returned to the University of Michigan and taught for the last eleven years of his life. He once quipped that he considered himself, "a poet who teaches in order to earn a living so that he can write a poem or two now and then."

In 1940, Hayden published his first book of poems. The same year he married Erma Inez Morris. He converted from his Baptist religion to her Baha’i faith. His new faith influenced his writing, and his publications helped publicize the Baha'i faith.

A Career in Poetry

For the remainder of his life, Hayden continued to write and publish poetry and essays. He disdained the political correctness that isolated "black poets" to give them a special critical treatment. Instead Hayden wanted to be considered just a poet, an American poet, and criticized only for the merits of his works.

According to James Mann in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Hayden "stands out among poets of his race for his staunch avowal that the work of black writers must be judged wholly in the context of the literary tradition in English, rather than within the confines of the ethnocentrism that is common in contemporary literature written by blacks." And Lewis Turco has explained, "Hayden has always wished to be judged as a poet among poets, not one to whom special rules of criticism ought to be applied in order to make his work acceptable in more than a sociological sense."

Other blacks who had bought into the false comfort of a segregated criticism for them harshly criticized Hayden's perfectly logical stance. According to William Meredith, "In the 1960s, Hayden declared himself, at considerable cost in popularity, an American poet rather than a black poet, when for a time there was posited an unreconcilable difference between the two roles. . . . He would not relinquish the title of American writer for any narrower identity."

While serving as professor, Hayden continued to write. His published collections include the following:

  • Heart-Shape in the Dust: Poems (Falcon Press 1940)
  • The Lion and the Archer (Hemphill Press 1948) Figures of Time: Poems (Hemphill Press 1955)
  • A Ballad of Remembrance (P. Breman 1962) Selected Poems (October House 1966)
  • Words in the Mourning Time (October House 1970) Night-Blooming Cereus (P. Breman 1972)
  • Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems (Liveright 1975)
  • American Journal (Liveright 1982)
  • Collected Poems (Liveright 1985).
  • Collected Prose (University of Michigan Press 1984).

Robert Hayden was awarded the Hopwood Award for poetry on two separate occasions. He also earned the Grand Prize for Poetry at the World Festival of Negro Arts for A Ballad of Remembrance. The National Institute of Arts and Letters bestowed on him the Russell Loines Award.

Hayden's reputation became well established in the poetry world, and in 1976, he was nominated to serve as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the position later designated Poet Laureate of the United States of America. He held that position for two years.

Robert Hayden died at age 66 on February 25, 1980, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is buried in Fairview Cemetery.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes