what is the theme of "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden ?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Robert Hayden was a poet most upset by violence; he was appalled by the Vietnam war and rioting in America in the 1960s, although he did not write the protest poetry that many of his contemporaries did. Still, in his sonnet about Frederick Douglass, in which Hayden writes,

this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien

he expresses the same feelings of alienation, loneliness, and being beaten down that other African-American poets wrote about. 

While the poem "Those Winter Sundays" written in 1966 has as a theme the lack of appreciation of children for the sacrifices made by their parents, especially if their relationship with them has tension, there is, perhaps, a more subtle underlying theme of the condition of African-Americans and the emotions they felt and brought home to their families.

In the narrative of the poem, the son's father is a blue collar worker with cracked hands from his hard labor job. But, on Sundays he still rises before the rest of the family and "made banked fires blaze." When the son rises and dresses, he fears "the chronic angers of that house" and so he speaks "indifferently" to "him,/who had driven out the cold." However, in the imagery and cosonance of words--as in the harsh /b/ of "banked fires blaze"-- there is a sense of the anger of the man who has had to endure demeaning work, harsh words and conditions in order to support his family. This futile anger against his social position that impedes any improvement may easily cause him at times to bring home his "chronic anger." Knowing that his child may well suffer the same sociological conditions, perhaps the father is "austere in his love" so that the boy will be hardened to the "lonely offices" of life. For, as a man, the son in apprehension exclaims,

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

Now he, too, is aware of loneliness, oppression, and alienation. Thus, another theme to Hayden's poignant poem may be the son's adult understanding of his father's "chronic anger" as a reaction against society rather than as hostile feelings towards his family for whom he sacrifices his comforts that they may be comforted.

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