The poem “Those Winter Sundays,” by Robert Hayden (whose name at birth was Asa Bundy Sheffey) explores a number of different themes. Two of the most obvious are love and ingratitude.
Love is a theme right from beginning line. The fact that the speaker’s father arose early on “winter Sundays” to build fires while his son still lay in bed is vivid evidence of the father’s love for his family, including his son. The father performs this ritual every winter day, even on a day when, after a long, hard week of work he might have expected someone else to undertake this necessary task. Many fathers, in fact, would have expected the son himself to arise and make the fire, perhaps in order to teach the son how to take on the responsibilities of an adult.
Instead, this father communicates his love not overtly, in words, but symbolically, through his behavior. He calls no great attention to his love; he simply enacts it. The literal warmth of the fire symbolizes the figurative warmth of the father’s affection, despite the fact that the house is sometimes full of “chronic angers” (9), perhaps between the speaker’s parents.
Significantly, only when the rooms are “warm” does the father call the son to arise; he waits until the home is at least physically comfortable before he seeks his son’s presence. He does not rush the son (“slowly I would rise and dress” ), perhaps because he realizes that the house, despite its physical warmth, is sometimes full of emotional coldness and tension. The father also shows an extra sign of love toward his son. Not only had the father “driven out the cold,” but he had also “polished [the son’s] good shoes as well” (11-12).
Yet the poem explores the theme of love in other ways as well. Now that the speaker is older himself, he is better able to appreciate -- and celebrate in words -- the quiet love that his father demonstrated so silently but meaningfully in the past. The poem itself is a verbal expression of love by the son for the father. The speaker now regrets that he, apparently like other members of the family, took the father’s love for granted and showed no gratitude for it at the time: “No one ever thanked him” (5). The poem is the speaker’s form of belated thanks, of belated reciprocal love, toward (and for) the father. The poem is also a kind of rebuke to the speaker’s younger self, as when he asks, in the work’s final lines,
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
These lines, in fact, unite the theme of love with another major theme of the poem: ingratitude, or at least the human tendency to take the love of others (especially family members, ironically) for granted. The statement in line 4 that “No one ever thanked” the father for his efforts is the first explicit evidence of the theme, but it appears as well, perhaps, in the reference to the home’s “chronic angers” (9), and it is implied again in the speaker’s reference, in line 10, to his own early indifference toward his father’s loving acts. Finally, the theme is stated openly in the work's closing lines (already quoted above). The entire poem is an expression of belated loving thanks for a love that had earlier been greeted with ingratitude and taken too much for granted.