Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

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How do imagery, metaphors, and similes contribute to the meaning of "Those Winter Sundays"? How do they relate to the emotions or ideas communicated by the poem?

Imagery, metaphors, and similes contribute to the meaning of "Those Winter Sundays" by making the emotions of the poem palpable to the reader. Robert Hayden's use of these devices enhances the poem's emotional message that love does not always look the way we might expect. Even if it is cold, "austere," or "lonely," like the love of the speaker's father, it still be real love.

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Tactile images are combined with visual or auditory images in order to represent the extreme temperatures and mimic the "coldness" with which the speaker, when he was a child, treated his father. The cold isn't just cold; it's "blueblack cold." This combination of information that appeals to two senses in one image is called synesthesia. Consider the color skin becomes when it is frostbitten (or even bruised): black and blue. These are colors associated with injury and pain. Later in the poem, the "cold [is] splintering, breaking," an image that combines the tactile cold with the auditory image of something splintering or cracking. This is painful-sounding as well. Both of these images that capitalize on synesthesia double up on the sensory experience. They emphasize how painful it must have been for the father to get up so very early, even on his one day off from the work that makes his "cracked hands" ache. This helps us to understand that he would only do such a thing out of love for his family; this is something his son did not understand when he was younger but seems to understand now.

Neither metaphors nor similes contribute to the poem's meaning. There is an example of metonymy when the speaker describes his fear of the "chronic angers of that house." The house itself is not angry, but it sounds like the people who live in it may be. The house is substituted for the people who live inside the house. If I were a father who had trouble expressing my love in conventional ways and no one ever seemed to appreciate the sacrifices I made for my loved ones, I'd imagine I'd get angry too. He does not sound like the affectionate or warm-and-fuzzy type, but it does not follow that he does not love his family because his only way of expressing his love is through "austere and lonely" practices.

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The basic meaning of this poem by Robert Hayden is that parental love is often demonstrated in ways that children do not appreciate at the time. The poem describes how the speaker's father would wake early every Sunday in "the blueblack cold," a vivid image which underlines the harshness of the conditions being faced for love. The speaker's father has been working all week: his "labor" has led him to enter the weekend with "cracked hands" which "ached." Again, these are quite visceral images; we can sense the pain in the father's hands as he forces himself to go about his business on these freezing mornings. It is worth it, though, because he is making "banked fires blaze" so that his children do not have to experience the same cold. The father is literally driving out the cold from his house; metaphorically, the heat of the fire is a manifestation of the warmth of his love, protecting his children from the coldness of the world outside.

The poem's speaker makes this explicit in the final stanza when he describes his father as having "driven out the cold." It is suggested that, as a child, he did not grasp the metaphorical meaning of what his father was doing for him—he was aware of the "splintering, breaking" cold, but never thought to thank his father for having taken care of things to make his day more comfortable. Now, he better understands "love's austere and lonely offices," and he recognizes the truth of what his father was doing—that his weekend morning labor in the cold was an act of love.
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The speaker in Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” recounts his father’s ritual of waking early every Sunday to warm the house. This three-stanza poem contains hot and cold imagery, and it is important to realize that, ironically, this imagery becomes less vivid as the poem progresses.

In the first stanza, we learn that the father woke early in “the blueblack cold” and “made / banked fires blaze.” This stanza features the most vivid imagery of the poem. The “blueblack cold” is followed by “banked fires blaze”—phrases that conjure antithetical images while sounding remarkably similar. That these sound so similar while meaning something so different—the first is an image of heat, the second of cold—mirrors the speaker’s indifferent tone (“No one ever thanked him").

The speaker moves slowly and indifferently, neither commenting on the heat nor his newly polished shoes to his father. By the time we reach the third stanza, the imagery recedes, becoming less and less vivid. The central imagery of the final stanza is on the boy’s polished shoes. This image is smooth and passionless, like the speaker’s tone as he reflects on the indifferent behavior of his youth. Instead of the “cracked hands” of the first stanza and the “cold splintering, breaking” of the second, the polished shoes lack texture. As a result, the speaker seems coldest when the house is warmest.

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The controlling metaphor of Robert Hayden's "Whose Winter Sundays" is in the father's "austere and lonely offices," acts of love performed against the elements so that the family would not encounter the cold.  Like the fire that the father builds, the imagery moves from cold to warm:  The father rises in the "blueblack cold,/then with cracked hands that ached from labor...." he builds a fire to warm the house.  Still in bed, the poet as a boy wakes and hears "the cold splintering, breaking."  The cold is bitter, and can be heard as well as felt.  The sensory images become auditory with the words splintering and breaking.  When the boy rises, he can still sense the "chronic angers" of the house.  This metaphor compares the harsh auditory images to complaints.  That is, it is as though the house complains as the father seeks to get it to warm up.

In the third stanza, however, the images become warmer as the poet reflectively expresses his appreciation of the father who

had driven out the cold/And polished my good shoes as well.

These images are warmer; the shining of the shoes expresses a positive feeling, and the father emerges as respected and admired through Hayden's use of these warm images in the closing couplet:

What did I know, what did I know/of love's austere and lonely offices?

The speaker, now a man, realizes that it was wrong that "No one ever thanked him."  Just as there has been a gap between the father and the son in the boy's youth as expressed in the first two stanzas, so, too, is there a gap between the perspective of the speaker as a youth and, finally, as an adult.

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