Essay Exploring “Realistic Love” Portrayed in Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.”
Robert Hayden’s biography is a story that begins in a difficult poverty, a tough family life and poor eyesight that prevented him from the occupations that many youth busy themselves. This trials turn into an unlikely success; with Hayden becoming the first black American to by appointed the Poet Laureate of the United States. Still, his background is present in his work. His personal history shines through in his famous poem “Those Winter Sundays.” On a reading recorded on The Poetry Foundation’s website, Hayden says before reciting the poem, “Here’s a poem that comes directly out of my boyhood in Detroit.”(Poetry Foundation, 2013) These are the personal circumstances that led to a poem, which through its imagery and motifs has universal, which paints an idea of “realistic” love.
Hayden’s youth and early life is pocked with family, financial troubles and family problems. His parents were divorced shortly before he was born. He spent much of his time reading and playing the violin, but poor eyesight later led to him having to give up the violin. He was raised in a poor area in Detroit, and shuffled between his biological and foster parents (Encyclopedia Britannica Online).
The poem is set, as is included as a reminiscing about the generality of the day Sunday during the winter. There is the speaker, who in this case which is closely associated with the author, Hayden, and the speaker’s father. The theme is seen from the lens of a later vantage point when the son is looking back at an unfolding of events that has ceased to occur.
The first stanza describes a father, “my father,” waking up early on a Sunday morning, tired from the work of the week. This is a day, presumably, when the father might not have to wake up so eerily, but he “too” wakes up early. Then he build a fire with “crocked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather.” This stanza ends with the speaker saying, “No one ever thanked him.” (Hayden, 4)
This first stanza sets a tone for the poem that persists through its development. It is about the austerity of thankless work of the working class as they struggle to make it. The speaker does not come from a stable home. In addition to not thanking his father for building a fire, he dresses while “fearing the chronic angers of that house.” (Hayden, 9).
The use of the pronoun “that” over, say, “my” is an important one. It builds a distance between the speaker and his home. It is clear that he lives there, he sleeps there, rises and dresses there, but instead of calling it “my house” denotes it “that house.” This goes well with the theme of chronic angers, which does not make the problems faced there seem solvable, but like climate of an area, merely something that must be dealt with.
The poem represents a change in the speaker’s perception. The poem is the finally speaking of unspoken subjects. In each stanza are struggles. In the first there is the coldness of the weather, which is always coldest just before dawn. In the second it is the coldness of the person of the father, who the reader must implicitly blames for the “chronic angers of that house.”
In the third stanzas is where the severity of the first two stanzas becomes more complicated. It is now the speaker who participates in what can be turned the less than fairy tale circumstances in the family. He speaks “indifferently” to his father, without realizing at the time that he had woken up early to drive out the cold and polish his shoes.
Here is where the disconnect from the past and the present is most pronounced. The speaker asks himself, “What did I know, what did I now / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” On the surface, the speaker is realizing that even though it did not feel like love at the time, though mornings still felt “blue-black cold” and one had to physically build a fire to remedy the satiation, there was something behind his father’s actions that can be inhabited by love.
This agrees with Jeannine Johnson’s reading of the poem which she emphasizes the reminiscent quality of the poem. She uses the word “sympathy” to describe the present feelings of the speaker presently feels about his father. This adds a universal theme to the poem, that of adult perspective changing the realities of youth. As a child, one is presented with reality as it is. Part of what it means to go from childhood to adulthood is not just a re-ordering of thoughts, but a change in understanding. The speaker as a child was just that—a child who felt resentments at family strife and did not like the cold. Empathy is something that grows with time. Only in hindsight does the speaker realize that his father suffered the same ordeals that the speaker did, only moreso, and silently.
The word, “office” is redolent of the theme of work and labor found throughout the poem, but it also is associated with religion, as is the title term, Sundays. Presumably, this is why the father has risen early and shined his son’s shoes, to attend a church service. The theme of Christian sacrifice, of martyrdom is also present in the poem.
There is a different language what it denotes the father than the other denoted objects within the poem. The father features “lumbering phrasal verbs” such as “got up” and “put on,” while the speaker uses more sophisticated constructions as in “slowly I would rise.” (Hayden, 8).
Love as a concept is usually presented to children in a fairy tale context. Children do not learn the complexity of the concept until later on in their lives. Love for the speaker was not something cold or uncomfortable. But love, perhaps inhabits more than anything else the office of our intentions. The love Hayden explores in “Those Winter Sundays,” was the pull that got his father out of his bed in the “blueback” cold to do thankless chores that would make things easier for his son. Though it may be “austere” or “lonely” one can still apply the term love to it when looking back upon it.
"Close Reading for "Those Winter Sundays"." Read. Write. Think. . N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2013. www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson1157/CloseReadNotes.pdf.
Hayden, Robert. "Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden : Poem Guide : Learning Lab : The Poetry Foundation." Poetry Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning
Johnson, Jeannine. “Those Winter Sundays: Overview.“Poetry for Students.
Detroit: Gale. Literature Resource Center.Web. 08 Mar. 2013.
“Robert Hayden.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2013 Web. 14 Mar. 2013.