“Those Winter Sundays” (by Robert Hayden; original name: Asa Bundy Sheffey) and “My Papa’s Waltz (by Theodore Roethke) are two of the most famous American poems dealing with relations between fathers and their children. In Hayden’s poem the speaker (presumably a boy) recalls, and belatedly appreciates, all the labor his father performed on his behalf when the boy was young. In Roethke’s poem, the speaker recalls how his drunken father would dance with the speaker when the latter was very small. These two poems can be compared and contrasted in a variety of ways, including the following:
- Both poems focus on vivid memories of fathers, but the speaker in Roethke’s poem directly addresses his father, whereas the speaker in Hayden’s poem does not, except perhaps in the final two lines. Thus the tone of Roethke’s poem is more subjective, while the tone of Hayden’s poem is more objective.
- The father in Roethke’s poem behaves somewhat irresponsibly, since he is drunk and since he does not seem to realize that he is hurting his son. The father in Hayden’s poem is extremely responsible and does everything possible to provide his son with physical comfort.
- Roethke’s poem is set in the evening; Hayden’s poem is set in the morning.
- The boy’s mother is mentioned in Roethke’s poem; no mother is mentioned explicitly in Hayden’s poem.
- The boy in Roethke’s poem seems somewhat afraid of his father and finds him a somewhat unpredictable and even slightly menacing figure. He recalls his father with a kind of fear. The boy in Hayden’s poem remembers his father as a loving, thoughtful, self-sacrificing figure. He recalls his father with love and respect, but also with some regret, since the son failed to express appreciation for his father when he was young.
- The boy in Roethke’s poem seems silent; no evidence suggests that he actually speaks to his father, perhaps because he feels intimidated by his father’s strength and drunkenness. In contrast, the boy in Hayden’s poem does speak to his father, but only “indifferently” (10) – a fact he now regrets.
- The focus on Roethke’s poem seems more on the boy’s feelings and reactions. The focus of Hayden’s poem seems more on the father. By the end of Roethke’s poem, we can’t tell, precisely, how the boy presently regards his father; the speaker never expresses an overt attitude toward his father; he simply reports how his father treated him. In contrast, by the end of Hayden’s poem, we know that the boy, now grown up, appreciates all that his father did for him. At the end of the poem, he praises his father’s love and thereby expresses love for his father:
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices? (13-14)
In a sense, by the end of Hayden’s poem, the speaker has come to resemble his father, especially in character and particularly in the ways he shows his own sense of responsibility and expresses his own sense of love. In contrast, the word “love” is never mentioned in Roethke’s poem – a fact which makes the tone of that poem far more ambiguous than the tone of Hayden’s.
- The speaker in Roethke’s poem focuses on how his father treated him and on the pain his father caused him; the speaker in Hayden’s poem focuses, eventually, on his own misgivings about his treatment of his father. There is a greater sense of moral maturity, perhaps, in Hayden’s poem than in Roethke’s.