Themes

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Last Updated on July 29, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910

Unconventional Love

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By exploring the raw edges of an emotionally charged memory, “Those Winter Sundays” ruminates on the nature of a specific father-son relationship and on the very nature of love itself. The poem is forgiving, and the strained experiences of youth take on greater dimension when viewed with the compassionate gaze of mature adulthood.

Rising early each day to perform “labor in the weekday weather” so strenuous it makes his hands crack and ache, the speaker’s father chooses to rise early on “Sundays too.” He does so to ensure that he is the first to rise, braving the “blueblack cold” so that his son does not have to. At the time, the speaker felt disconnected from his father; he was slow to rise, spoke to him “indifferently,” and lived in fear of the house’s “chronic angers.” Importantly, his father’s selfless acts do not figure into his childhood image of his father. Indeed, they are taken for granted, and the speaker realizes that he neither appreciated his father’s quiet kindnesses nor realized their implication. He describes a disconnect between the feeling and act of love in order to question whether or not such acts constitute love, and, if so, whether or not they make up for the strained, distant relationship he and his father shared.

Interestingly, the final lines of stanza 3, written after the speaker has realized the selflessness of his father’s simple acts, frame those acts as a token “of love’s austere and lonely offices.” The choice of the adjective “austere” connotes a sense of lofty strictness, while the phrase “lonely offices” poses love as more akin to a duty or an obligation. Marrying this unconventional characterization with the tension of the house, and the strict, duty-oriented love of the final stanza, makes this image even more striking. Father-son relationships are complex, particularly for a father characterized as a hardworking man of his time. Love is spoken through acts of service rather than words or other displays of affection. Such tension strains the speaker’s perception of what love, family, and father-son relationships should be. Only with time can the child, now a man, see with the clarity necessary to make peace with his father as he was.

Memory and Perspective 

The poem is written in a state of reflection, looking back fondly, then regretfully, at a scene from the speaker’s childhood. Distanced from his childhood self, the speaker has gained the ability to see the core of his contentious relationship with his father. The perspective of the first stanza is interesting, as the speaker compassionately describes a scene to which he would not have been privy. Watching his father rise and dress with practiced ease, the speaker indicates an ability to look beyond himself and empathize with his father—not only as a parental figure performing the necessary tasks for his child but also as his own person facing his own struggles. He has a new insight into this distant figure of childhood, one born of adult empathy and, perhaps, shared experiences with struggle and fatherhood.

Too, the past tense construction of the question “what did I know” implies new understanding, asking after the knowledge that once eluded the speaker while indicating that he has gained insight through distance and time. Now that the speaker is removed from the “chronic angers” of the house and, perhaps, of his father, the speaker has gained new perspective on his memories. Now, his father’s actions carry the context of adult knowledge, and the speaker understands his weariness, his “aching” hands, and his willingness to bear such simple burdens for his son. Time and distance have granted the speaker clarity; from this mature knowledge, the speaker finds not only forgiveness but admiration and learns to respect his father’s struggles and particular way of showing love.

Fatherhood and Masculinity

“Those Winter Sundays” narrates a father-son relationship steeped in the context of poverty, masculinity, and a host of twentieth-century expectations for male breadwinners. The speaker describes his father’s daily labors: bearing the ceaseless burden of a physically demanding job to provide for his son and, even then, making simple sacrifices to ensure his small comforts and relieve him of struggle.

Looking back on their relationship, the speaker cannot help but see the deep love implicit in the simple act of making “banked fires blaze.” To question such love is to question the man himself, for how else could such a man—a quintessential twentieth-century laborer facing poverty and struggle—show love? How much can the speaker ask of this gruff man who seems as emotionally hardened to the world as his “cracked” and “aching” hands?

The speaker’s household carried the weight of “angers” and tension, and the speaker’s father seemingly could not verbalize or outright show the love he had for his son. However, as the speaker realizes later in life, these inadequacies diminish in the face of adult reality. Love’s “offices,” or duties, are, as the speaker writes, “austere” and “lonely”; fatherhood is an isolating, often thankless job—even more so when stacked against a litany of other struggles. His father did as well as he could, and these simple acts of service speak more to his feelings toward his son than the speaker ever realized. Now, as a man, he sees through the masculine visage of early twentieth-century fatherhood to understand the intense love he finds at its center.

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