Last Updated on July 29, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1077
Robert Hayden’s 1962 poem “Those Winter Sundays” describes a domestic scene from the speaker’s childhood. Viewing it from a position of nostalgic recollection, the speaker sees the scene as it was; now, as an adult, he is better able to understand his father and the unspoken ways in which he showed love. Performing simple labors to ease his son’s life—such as starting a fire to warm the house on cold mornings or polishing his son’s best shoes—was the way this bone-weary man quietly showed affection. Such acts, however, often went unnoticed and unappreciated. Only as an older man can the speaker understand his father’s unconventional way of showing love, a rueful realization that marks the poem with a strained sense of regretful longing.
Born in 1913 and raised by a foster family in an impoverished neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, Robert Hayden depicts the tensions and uncertainties of his youth through the lens of a speaker reflecting on his boyhood. Infused with the insecurity of a young boy unsure of his place in a tumultuous family context, the poem contains numerous disconnects—between the boy and his father; between the boy, now an adult, and his past self; and between poet and speaker. Hayden’s context colors the poem’s subject. His discussion of the speaker’s father—who may, like Hayden’s own foster father, be a working man living in Detroit during the early days of the city’s twentieth-century industrial boom—paints a picture of life at the time: burdened by the trying rhythms of daily circumstance yet imbued with quiet, overpowering love.
“Those Winter Sundays” is told through flashback, recalling, as the title suggests, winter days long since past and the domestic scenes of this nearly forgotten time. The poem begins by naming and characterizing its subject—the speaker’s father—telling readers in the opening line that “Sundays too my father got up early.” The father’s character quickly takes shape as his figure is fleshed out to reveal the nature of the man and his habits; not only on Sundays does he get up early, but, as the first line implies, he does so every day. First awake, he “puts his clothes on in the blueblack cold” and resigns himself to the labors of yet another day. Even on a day of rest, he is at work, and the bleak image of the man, outlined in the darkness, dressing quickly for the chill, speaks to the mundane burdens he unflinchingly bears.
The speaker’s father does all this with “cracked hands” still aching from “labor in the weekday weather” and, despite the pain, rises in the dark and the cold to make “banked fires blaze.” Lighting the fire is a simple act with—as the speaker later realizes—immense implications; neither he nor the rest of his family must wake or dress in the “blueblack cold.” His father’s daily sacrifice ensures the simple comfort of waking in a warm home. As a child, the speaker neither recognized nor understood the underlying message of this luxury; lighting the fire every morning was a selfless act of unspoken love, and as the speaker regretfully recalls, “no one”—including the speaker himself—“ever thanked him.”
The second stanza shifts the focus from the father to the speaker, awakening to the sound of the “cold splintering, breaking” as the fire’s warmth slowly seeps throughout the house. It was only “when the rooms were warm” that his father would “call” to the speaker; as he moved to “rise and dress,” it was at his father’s behest, knowing that the house was warm and his son would not have to face the chill darkness of the winter morning. The speaker describes rising “slowly” for fear of the “chronic angers of that house,” a moment of tension devoid of context that recalls Hayden’s own tumultuous childhood. It situates the speaker’s nostalgic filial reckoning as a conversation between the tumult of the speaker’s home and his father both as they were and as he now sees them.
The speaker’s preoccupation with these “chronic angers” sours his experience of his father’s kindness, and he rises, “speaking indifferently to him.” Focused first on descriptions of the father, then on the speaker’s strained relationship with him, the final stanza revises the nostalgia of the previous lines. Rather than describing the disconnect of their relationship as it was then, the speaker explains his internal disconnect across time, struggling to reconcile his boyhood ignorance with the painful retroactive understanding he has found as an adult. To the man who had risen in the dark, “driven out the cold,” and “polished my good shoes as well,” he was ambivalent and ungrateful, and he regrets it dearly.
In an atypical iteration of the conventional sonnet, the final two lines of the third stanza indicate a meaningful turn. The mournful repetition of “what did I know, what did I know” reveals the speaker’s struggle to reconcile his fractured perspective. At first, the question is almost comical, pointing to the blithe ignorance of youth and the speaker’s boyhood inability to see the truth of his father’s selfless, if quiet and unassuming, acts of love. Upon repetition, however, the question is imbued with the regret of a relationship left forever unresolved. Contemplating love’s “austere and lonely offices”—offices, that is, in the sense of duties or even forms of worship—the speaker comes to fully understand his father. As he poses it, fatherly love is a strict, selfless, ritualistic thing rarely reciprocated. Despite the thanklessness of his position, the speaker’s father persevered, rising in the darkness, lighting the fire, and caring for his family in subtle, unacknowledged ways.
“Those Winter Sundays” presents the speaker’s complicated feelings toward his father; from boyhood indifference to the guilt and regret of adulthood, the speaker’s perspective shifts rapidly, ending with a sense of respect for his father’s thankless, willing endurance. Perhaps they can never reconcile, and the speaker cannot retroactively communicate his love and appreciation. The poem is tragic because it remains unresolved; as an adult, the speaker has come to understand the patient, long-suffering nature of fatherhood but is incapable of speaking that understanding and appreciation to his own father. It ends with the regret of opportunities missed and lost forever, buried in time but kept alive by memories.