The Poem

“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...

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Forms and Devices

“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...

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