We have all been at a point in our lives during childhood when we have had disagreements or discordance with our parents. Only later do we realize that behind ever reprimanding act or dialog, was immense love and concern. We bring you the summary and analysis of "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden, a poem which discusses one such person’s realizations of his father’s silent love.
A Whole New Person
Robert Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey, and when he was taken into the neighbor’s foster home, he was addressed as Robert and took on his foster father William Hayden’s surname.
Childhood is a roller-coaster ride of emotions and experiences, and often we are thrust into a confusing and frustrating situation at a very early age. This leads to tension, resentment, anger, ignorance, and pain. One of the most tested aspects is our relationship with our parents. We often find it hard to understand the reasoning behind the criticism and rebukes we face. What we fail to understand is that, behind that hard exterior that our families have to assume, is unbound, unconditional, and undying love. And when that realization does set in, it often tends to be a moment too late.
Robert Hayden’s poem, “Those Winter Sundays” is one such piece of literature that focuses on the realization of the narrator who used to view his father as a hard, uncaring man, but only later does he realize that his true love was hidden in the simplest of acts.
This article brings you the poem analysis of “Those Winter Sundays”, along with its summary and a little about the author.
“THOSE WINTER SUNDAYS”: A Summary
The poem begins by informing us that on Sundays too, his father would wake up at dawn, even in winters, when the skies were still tinged bluish-black and it was freezing cold outside. The word “too” tells us that it was not just Sundays but the other six days too that his dad woke up before the crack of dawn. He describes his father as a man with hands that were “cracked” and “ached” due to the labor that he endured on the weekdays in the bitter cold, suggesting that his father might have been a manual laborer. With those weathered hands, he would wake up and light all the fireplaces in the house to drive away the cold and ensure that his family didn’t have to suffer the cold. We are also told that no one appreciated or thanked him for his kindness.
The second stanza shifts focus onto the narrator, who wakes up to sound of the fire crackling and the wood splintering. His father would only wake him up once the place was nice and warm, and with that the author would wake up, and get dressed at a leisurely pace. Since it is a Sunday, we assume it is in preparation for Sunday Mass at church. He would go about this act as slowly as he could, in order to avoid the “chronic angers of that house”. This could mean one of two things.
Either it refers to his father who must have scolded his son often, or to the house which is personified as radiating the anger that was present in the house often, meaning that there was discord and fights that occurred regularly within the members.
The narrator tells us that he was cold and indifferent towards his father, someone who had cared for him by doing simple things like keeping him warm and polishing his shoes for church. His regret is evident in the last two lines when he voices his guilt by saying that back then he didn’t know that love could come in the form of strict and simple actions, which were also dutifully fulfilled by the father, but missed by the speaker up until this moment.
POETRY ANALYSIS OF “THOSE WINTER SUNDAYS”
Contrast Between Warmth and Cold
The temperature settings of the poem can be compared to the actions of the speaker. At first he is harsh and cold towards his father, like the many winter Sundays he has experienced. Later on, just as the fire brings warmth to the house, he warms up to his father and realizes that the latter’s actions were kind and warm, and not harsh like he had assumed the man to be.
The word “offices” gives the poem a multitude of meanings, because office can refer to a workplace, something we most commonly attribute the word “office” to. It also refers to an obligation or duty. Finally, “office” also stands for service or a kind of worship in the Christian church. So if we take from these dual meanings, we can conclude that his father’s actions expressed a kind of dutiful love that was fulfilled each time, unfailingly.
Form and Meter
Although the poem has 14 lines and begins with two lines with ten syllables each-just as a sonnet does, it doesn’t follow a clear rhythm or meter like a traditional sonnet, instead the iambic pentameter (seen in sonnets) is used in a couple of lines, but a changing rhythm and meter is used in the rest. And unlike a conventional sonnet, which is generally based on romantic love, this is based on familial love. All in all it is an unconventional sonnet.
The poem is like a split between the past and the present. The narrator speaks in the present, but about incidents from the past, as if he were reminiscing. It is also based in a cold winter night, much like the weather back in Detroit, where Hayden grew up. He uses this setting to knowledgeably compare his cold actions to the weather mentioned in the poem.
There is a universality that we can attribute to the poem, in the sense that, because there is no clear description of the narrator, it is something that everyone can relate to; be it young or old, male or female. It also shows us the narrator’s actions both in childhood, and his realization as he comes of age.
Usage of Sound
Alliteration refers to the repetition of the initial consonants’ sound when placed close to each other. In the poem, he uses this in “blueblack”, “weekday weather”, and “When the rooms were warm”.
It is a type of alliteration where the consonant sounds are repeated. In the poem it is reflected with the letters “B” in “blueblack”, “W” in “weekday weather”, and “when the rooms were warm”, “L” in “love” and “lonely, “K” in “blueback”, “cracked”, “banked”, “thanked”, “chronic” (sound of “K”), “cold”(sound of “K”), “breaking”, “call”(sound of “K”) and “speaking”, and “Z” with “clothes” and “blaze”.
This is another form of alliteration that refers to the repetition of the vowel sounds. We see this in the dragging sound of “A” in “ached” and “blazed”, and also with “I”, which gives it an iambic rhythm.
The words “splintering, breaking” used to describe the burning wood in the fireplace, can also refer to the reaction of wooden floors or walls in the house which expand and sometimes crack in the cold weather.
In the event that the term “chronic angers” refers to the house reflecting the constant conflict in the house, then the house is being personified.
Allusions are a direct or indirect reference made to well-known persons, objects, events, places, etc. The major allusion used here is that of Christianity, where the father polishes the boy’s good shoes on a Sunday and he gets ready, obviously for church. Also, the word “offices” can mean worship or a kind of service in the Christian church.
As the word suggests, it refers to repeated words or phrases. It is seen in “What did I know, what did I know”.
The final question is rhetorical, which is used to increase the appeal, even though it is more a statement than a question.
It is the use of words or phrases in reference to a subject, object, or incident previously mentioned in the content. The last two sentences, “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices” refers to the rest of the poem’s subject where the father’s actions went unseen and unacknowledged.
It is the coining of a brand new word in order to describe an already existing factor in an easier manner. The word “blueblack” is a form of Neologism.
This poem is based on the love of a father or parent for their child, which goes unnoticed and unappreciated until the very end.
The poem is based on the sacrifice that a parent makes each day in order to support and care for their family. In this poem, the father sacrifices his own well-being and sleep in order to ensure that his family stays warm and comfortable.
Naiveté of Youth
We are often ignorant and assumptive during our youth and fail to understand the actions of our family towards us. This is reflected in the initial attitude of the narrator towards his father, back in his childhood.
Upon realizing his father’s love for him, which was shown through the simplest of actions, the narrator regrets not having known or understood that love was not merely the use of kind words or showered affection, but can be shown through a multitude of ways.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey on the 4th of August, 1913, in Detroit, Michigan to Ruth and Asa Sheffey. They separated early in life, and he was taken in by his neighbors who had a foster home. He was then named Robert Hayden (taking his foster father’s name). He was short and nearsighted, because of which he didn’t make many friends, and was not able to participate in sports like others his age did. This led him to delve into the world of books.
He attended Detroit City College and later went on to work at the Federal Writers’ Project. He quit, got married, and his first volume was published in 1940, named Heart-Shape in the Dust. He enrolled in the University of Michigan in 1941, winning a Hopwood Award during the time. He then studied under W. H. Auden, an acclaimed poet, who taught him to focus on technicality and structure, which became a major essence of Hayden’s works. In 1942, he taught at Michigan for several years, then left for Fisk University in 1946, and returned to Michigan in 1969 to complete his teaching. He served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1976 to 1978, the post now referred to as the U.S. Poet Laureate. He is noted as being the first African-American to hold that post.
He died on 25th February, 1980, aged 66, and was honored in 2012 by the U.S. Postal Service which featured him in a pane of stamps which showed 10 Great Twentieth Century American Poets.
Hayden was an inspiring poet who addressed issues of daily life that people from all walks of life could relate to. Hopefully, this article has helped you understand one of his most anthologized works a lot better.