Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

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Analysis

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Consisting of fourteen lines divided across three stanzas of five, four, and five lines, “Those Winter Sundays” is a unique take on the sonnet, employing the traditional fourteen-line structure though rejecting rhyme and meter schemes. Rather than an octave and sestet, or three quatrains and a couplet, the poem’s three-stanza structure is unconventional, composed of two quintains and a quatrain. Similar to a Shakespearean sonnet, the final stanza of “Those Winter Sundays” ends with the complicated question: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” Enjambed across two lines, the question is formatted as a couplet, a nod to the traditional sonnet, and presents the speaker’s rueful perspective as it has changed throughout a lifetime.

The repetition of harsh consonants, particularly the striking “k” and “c” sounds in words such as “cracked,” “thanked,” “ached,” and “blueblack,” melds with the bleak visuals of the lone father, rising alone in the dark and the cold. Scattered alliteration in phrases such as “banked fires blaze” and “weekday weather” contribute to the unique sound, adding a sense of melody and rhythm to the unrhymed sonnet. The poem relies on strong sensory imagery and relies on sharp consonant sounds and short visual descriptions, as in the phrase “cold splintering, breaking,” to communicate tone and mood. In so doing, the poem sources deep regret in the sharply described drudgery of the winter mornings the speaker so precisely recalls.

As the poem proceeds, the speaker’s understanding of the scene changes, a perspective shift indicated by an accompanying shift in tone that embraces a profound sense of sorrow. The first stanza is tasked with description, setting the nearly forgotten scene of the speaker’s childhood. As he is still asleep, the first stanza is devoid of his voice, presented in a distant—almost entirely removed—first-person point of view stealing a glimpse into the daily patterns of his father’s life. The stanza ends with the discomfiting realization that “no one ever thanked” his father for his efforts, though the speaker cannot yet fully face this difficult fact.

The second stanza takes place in the speaker’s subjective understanding of the past to present his experience through the lens of childhood. He writes of “fear” and “anger,” concerned only with the threat of potential tumult and, with a child’s ignorance, fails to recognize the undercurrent of deep love that flows through the slowly warming house. By the end of the third stanza, the speaker seems to write from a position of removal—more than spatial or temporal, it is an understanding born of progress, growth, and, perhaps, shared experience with this thankless, quiet love.

Much like the speaker’s, Hayden’s home was one of “chronic angers.” Backgrounded by poverty, early twentieth-century race relations, and unconventional family dynamics, his childhood was textured by uncertainty. His foster parents fought regularly, and he was often used as a target for their anger, occasionally suffering physical abuse and violence. Outside of the home, Hayden’s nearsightedness, small stature, and skin color made him a target for bullying and abuse. As such, the mornings the speaker recalls carry the burden of his suffering; the “indifference” with which he speaks to his father is understandable. His father made certain that he would not rise in the dark or the cold; however, when the speaker says that “slowly, I would rise and dress,” the process of facing the day carries a similar bleakness to his father’s. The speaker, too, must brave the harshness of the day, though the difficulty he faces is neither the chill of dark mornings nor the promise of hard labor; instead, it...

(This entire section contains 920 words.)

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is the threat of violence and abuse.

Writing as an older man, the speaker approaches the tension of his upbringing with a critical eye, seeking to understand the nuance he may have missed. This is the impact of the final couplet, ending with a guilt-stricken, repeated question. The poem’s narrative progress shifts from nostalgic recollection in order to locate the speaker in the unyielding present. As an adult, the speaker knows that the questions of his youth cannot be resolved. All that remains are questions; he asks forgiveness of himself, for he was only a child and could not have known.

The final couplet paints a picture of dissonance between the speaker’s father’s quiet ways of showing love, the “chronic angers” of his household, and the speaker’s slow, indifferent process of awakening. It asks a deeper question, one which points to the dangerous nature of love in abusive homes—what should one make of this unspoken love in a chronically angry home? This is the poem’s defining tension, aiming to reconcile not only the father’s quiet love but also the home’s louder outbursts, for the speaker's final plea strives to make peace with his childhood and his father as they were.

Calling the “offices,” or duties, of love “austere and lonely,” the speaker realizes that, despite his father’s obvious faults, he was driven by a set of paternal values that were equally, if less obviously, present. The poem concludes with an appreciation of his father’s kindness while forgiving him for his failures, finding admiration and love for a man who often seemed distant, and making peace with the tumult and confusion of his childhood. It is the rumination of a man who has found clarity through distance but cannot forgive himself for the ignorance of his youth.

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