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Last Updated on July 29, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 920

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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 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.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577

“Those Winter Sundays” is a short lyric in which the speaker remembers a moment in his childhood and thinks about the sacrifices his father made for him then. This split or double perspective of the poem provides its power, for the poem’s meaning depends upon the differences between what the boy knew then and what the man—a father himself, perhaps—knows now.

The poem begins abruptly. The second word of the first line, “too,” in fact, assumes actions that have gone before—that the father got up early on other days as well as Sundays to help his family. In this first stanza the reader learns about the father rising in the cold to heat the house before the rest of his family gets up. The last line of the stanza contains the first hint of one of the poem’s central themes: “No one ever thanked him.”

In the second stanza, the narrator recalls waking as the cold, like ice, was “splintering, breaking” as a result of his father’s having lit a wood fire to warm the house. And “slowly” he would get up and dress—in the stanza’s last and the poem’s most difficult line—“fearing the chronic angers of that house.” At this point the reader can only guess at the source of those angers. The third and final stanza continues the actions of the narrator, who speaks “indifferently” to the father who has worked so early and so hard to heat the house for his family and has “polished my good shoes as well.” It is Sunday, and probably the boy and his father (and other unnamed family members) are going to church.

In the concluding couplet of the poem, the adult narrator, who has been implied throughout the poem, suddenly steps forward with his final poignant question, “what did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices?” If the body of the poem deals with the gap between the father and his son, the poem’s focus in the last two lines is clearly on the gap between the boy, so indifferent to the father’s sacrifices then, and the adult narrator who in his repetition of the question—almost like some incantatory prayer—reveals the pain this memory holds for him: “What did I know, what did I know?” I was a child then, the couplet implies, and I did not realize what it means to be a man, a father, and to perform the “austere and lonely” duties that family love demands. I never thanked my father, and I cannot today.

The last stanza, and especially those concluding two lines, hardly resolve the tensions of the poem. Rather, the reader is only now fully aware of the real conflicts the poem has described—not only between the indifferent child and the hard-working father, but between the narrator as a boy and the man he has become, who now knows what he missed as a young child. “Those Winter Sundays” is a poem without resolution, a poem with its pains redoubled rather than resolved. The speaker’s final question,“What did I know?” can only elicit the answer “nothing” from the reader. In addition, the mystery of line 9 about the “chronic angers of that house” remains unsolved. Are these the angers of any house with young children? Are they only the angers that result from dragging reluctant children to church? The reader cannot be certain.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

“Those Winter Sundays” is a fairly direct and accessible short lyric. Its language is clear and precise, its metaphors are those of everyday life, and its metrics present no particular difficulties. The form of the poem fits its content closely, and the poem’s power comes from this almost perfect fusion.

One interesting thing about the poem is that it is fourteen lines long; poems of such a length are usually called sonnets, but Hayden’s poem—instead of having an octave and a sestet, or three quatrains and a concluding couplet, as most conventional sonnets do—violates the sonnet form by having three almost identical stanzas of five, four, and five lines. Yet the spirit of the sonnet form (which often poses and then tries to answer a question or problem) lies beneath the poem’s lines in this three-part structure. The first five lines describe the father’s actions, the next seven the boy’s response (or lack of response) to those actions, and the concluding two the final agonizing question that the narrator, now grown himself, is left with. Thus the sense, if not the structure, of the sonnet form is replicated in “Those Winter Sundays.”

Even more noticeable than the stanzaic form of the poem is its language. Rarely in such a short lyric do readers find such intense imagery. The “blueblack cold” of the second line evokes a picture of ice, which is “splintering, breaking” four lines later. The cold is rendered vividly in such an extended image. Likewise the “cracked hands” of line 3 imply that the father is a laborer of some sort, which makes his work for his family even more difficult: His hands are already roughened by his efforts to support his family; now, every morning, they suffer more from working in the freezing cold. The alliteration of the repeated k sounds in the poem—“blueblack cold,” “cracked,” “ached,” “banked,” “thanked,” and so on—reinforces the discomfort. (At the same time, the assonance and internal rhyme of the poem soften this harshness somewhat.)

Finally the poem’s last line, “offices,” reverberates with meaning. An office is a job, a duty, but it also carries the idea of a form or service of religious worship, and that sense clearly exists in the poem. Family love demands “austere and lonely offices” (austere denoting ascetic self-denial), for a family member’s actions may never earn any kind of acknowledgment. And yet, as in any religious service, family love also carries a spiritual and transcendent meaning—and it is, after all, Sunday morning when the poem’s actions take place.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

“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 house.

This background can thus provide context for the poem’s central meaning, the tension between the child who is so indifferent to the sacrifices, the “offices,” his father performs almost invisibly, and the man who recognizes now what they meant. In the poem’s present time, it is implied, the speaker is a man; perhaps he is a father himself. He has, in a sense, become his father. Now he knows what family love and devotion mean, and he can appreciate the complex tensions and relationships in any family. He also knows the full story of his painful and complicated family history. The poem suggests that it may be too late, however; apparently the speaker cannot thank his father (or foster father) or tell him what he now feels. As so often happens, the poem suggests, family members miss the opportunity to express their gratitude until those who should be thanked are dead and gone.

Hayden created a poem that describes a universal human situation, but he drew from his own personal history for the texture of the work. The result is a short and powerful lyric that gives its readers a sense of the pain and suffering life often inflicts but only rarely resolves.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 193

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