Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Those Winter Sundays” benefits from biographical and historical interpretation. Robert Hayden was a mid-twentieth century African American poet who rarely called attention to racial issues. In fact, he was often criticized in the decades before his death by younger and more political black writers for not using racial themes more overtly.

The themes are there nonetheless. Hayden grew up in Detroit in the 1920’s as that city was being transformed by the migrations of hundreds of thousands of blacks moving from the South to the industrial North for work. His neighborhood was changing daily. In addition, his own family life was a difficult and unstable one. His parents abandoned him as a baby, giving him to neighbors to raise. He believed that he had been adopted by the Haydens, but they were only his foster parents. To complicate matters even more, the woman who used to come to stay with the Haydens when he was young, Hayden later learned, was in fact Robert’s biological mother. Such a strained family situation undoubtedly created tensions for all involved.

This background gives new meaning to the poem, and especially to line 9 and the unresolved question of the house’s “chronic angers.” Hayden spent his early years in a home full of family secrets and in a city undergoing its own incredible transformation. The angers may be explained, in part at least, by the complex personal and sociological changes going on within and around...

(The entire section is 448 words.)