Those Winter Sundays – Robert Hayden, 1913 – 1980
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’s Those Winter Sundays is a short poem that describes a loving father’s difficult relationship with his ungrateful son. Several themes including sacrifice, poverty, love and ingratitude appear in the poem. Hayden makes use of figurative language to vividly paint the tough relationship the speaker had with his father in his younger years. The speaker looks back to his younger years and speaks remorsefully of his inexperience, coupled with inability to recognize and appreciate his father’s subtle expressions of love. Through this poem, Hayden shows that there are numerous ways of expressing love and the importance of expressing gratitude.
The poem begins with a description of a particular Sunday morning, expressing the calmness that is associated with this time of the week. In the second line, Hayden breaks the sense of calm when he tells us that the father has to endure harsh cold weather to prepare a better start of the day for his son. Waking up on a cold Sunday illustrates the love this man had for his family. The speaker’s use of the word ‘too’ indicates that this was a routine. Another prominent feature of this line is the word ‘Sunday.’ Being a day of rest, anyone who works hard during weekdays should take time off to rest. However, the love the father has for his family makes him wake up early for them. The day also denotes a religious aspect. Given that this is the day of worship, the father did not have to wake up very early when it was still cold. Nevertheless, he woke up routinely to stir the fire and make rooms more comfortable while the speaker still lay in bed.
In line 2, the words ‘blueblack cold’ feature to show that the experience the father had to undergo in preparing for his household’s rising was not pleasant. Despite the biting cold, the father would endure this discomfort for the sake of his family’s comfort. This illustrates the selfless nature of the father. In addition, he did all these with “cracked hands that ached” (line 3). This implies that this experience was taxing to the man’s health. Nevertheless, he unquestioningly and selflessly bore this burden humbly. This line pensively illustrates that he was not only ready to bear the cold of the morning but also the pain in his hands for the sake of his family’s well-being.
The first stanza comes to an abrupt end with a tinge of regret and guilt in the speaker’s voice. We learn that despite this expression of love for his family, no one thanked him. This clearly brings out the theme of ingratitude. The speaker’s use of the word ‘ever’ indicates that this happened on throughout his younger years. Nevertheless, this did not make the father stop waking up early to make everybody else’s morning more comfortable. This persistence is an indication that the father was not after receiving recognition for his efforts but rather carried on with this arduous task diligently, perhaps because he saw it as a duty.
Stanza 2 begins with the speaker’s personal experience of the transition between cold and warmth. The author says he would wake up to hear “the cold splintering, breaking” (Line 6). The choice of words in this line paints the scene vividly. The words “splintering, breaking” makes the situation not only visible in the reader’s mind but also audible. This reinforces the torturous conditions this man bore every morning for the sake of his family. Hayden uses the word “cold” in this line to symbolize the household’s demeanor towards the man. The fact that no one appreciated his efforts could only make the cold mornings more miserable. Additionally, this line metaphorically reveals the relationship between the father and the son over time—how it transitioned from cold to warm. Initially, the speaker was indifferent to his father’s subtle expressions of love. However, as he grows older he begins to take note of how much his father is sacrificing for his sake.
In line 7, the speaker mentions warmth in the rooms. Other than symbolizing absence of cold, Hayden’s choice of words in this line illustrates the speaker’s inability to realize his father’s affection. His gestures of love perhaps made the house more hospitable despite the ‘chronic angers’ the speaker mentions in line 9. The father took it upon himself to ensure that the house was at least hospitable before waking his son. The fact that the speaker would wake up “slowly” (line 8) indicates the father was caring enough not to rush his child out of bed. This act of kindness is yet another illustration of how the father showed loved to the speaker.
In addition to driving out the cold, the father also polished his son’s shoes (line 12). This is a further expression of the affection the father had to his child. In most circumstances, parents require children to polish their own shoes—perhaps as a way of teaching them responsibility. However, in this case the father does the contrary. One would think braving a cold on a Sunday morning to make a fire and warm the rooms, despite having cracked, aching hands is enough. However this father goes ahead to even brush his child’s shoes, a selfless gesture of love.
In stanza 3, line 10, the speaker speaks retrospectively and remorsefully of the cold treatment he gave his father. He fondly remembers his father’s sacrifice of making rooms warmer and polishing his shoes (line 11) but is sad that he did not express gratitude for such kindness. Hayden uses the words “who had driven out cold” (line 11) to indicate how the speaker now remembers his father with awe. In line 13 and 14, the speaker blames his ignorance about love and its unbiased expression. The speaker rhetorically asks himself “What did I know” (13) to suggest the naivety he had in not realizing how his father sacrificed himself for the comfort of his child.
The word ‘austere’ (line 14) points to the speaker’s mature realization of that his father did not perform his loving duties with expectation of receiving gratitude. Was this the case, then he would have stopped when his son remained indifferent. The word could also mean that the father did not view his gestures as acts of kindness but rather duties that come with fatherhood. Yet again, the word explains the bare nature of the father’s expression of love—it was not accompanied with appreciation of any sort from the recipient. The fact that the household had “chronic angers” means that the father did not posses love as a natural manifestation. He just fulfilled his duties as a responsible father.
This poem is a description of a father’s selfless love for his son who is young and oblivious to this love. It points to the speaker’s naïve expectations of how love can be expressed. It is only after the son grows older that he is able to look back and remorsefully remember how he was unappreciative of his father’s love. The son is kind of rebuking himself for not having returned his father’s kind gesture in any way, other than with the indifference he showed. Hayden uses this poem to illustrate that love can be expressed in various ways. It also subtly emphasizes the importance of showing appreciation for love received.