An Analytic Review
In Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” we get a glimpse of the author’s childhood relationship with his father. In this work, Hayden describes a child’s view of a father from a now-adult perspective. His regret is evident, and the sadness in his voice rings down the corridors of time.
“Those Winter Sundays” begin with a description of Hayden’s father rising in the early hours even on “Sundays too” (1), letting the reader know he gets up every morning in the same way. Using consonance, Hayden drives home both the hour and the temperature, noting “the blueblack cold,” (2). The use of the consonance serves to emphasize the chilly mornings and leaves the impression of a shocking blast of cold greeting the first to rise in the house. With the use of synesthesia, an even stronger image is created that allows the reader to use both tactile and visual senses to understand the cold in the house.
Hayden is writing “Those Winter Sundays” in retrospect, and looking back on his father he is recognizing the difficult life he could not appreciate as a child. Hayden describes his father’s “cracked hands that ached/from labor in the weekday weather” (3-4). Still, sore from hard work, every morning he got up and “made/banked fires blaze.” (4-5). This action is an effort to care for his family: he got up first and warmed the house.
The first stanza is filled with alliteration: banked and blaze, then weekday and weather. The use of alliteration in the first stanza using the b and w sounds harsh. It underscores the brutality of the cold and the sacrifice his father was making. Hayden also employed assonance: ached and blaze. The long a in these words creates a sense of sadness and reflects the tone of the poem.
The second stanza of “Those Winter Sundays” moves from Hayden describing his father to a description of his own behavior. He has no memory of the cold because his father did not wake him until the house was warm. His memory is of hearing “the cold splintering, breaking.” (6). Hayden is hearing the fire, and his figurative description gives the reader a sense of the cold being an object his father can break and scatter so the family is unaffected by it. Hayden says “slowly I would rise and dress,” (8) suggesting some level of luxury his father is not afforded.
The second stanza ends with Hayden’s memory of “fearing the chronic angers of that house,” (9). This can be interpreted one of two ways: the people in it are angry, or the author has used personification and is suggesting the house is angry. If the reference is to the people in the house, that two has multiple interpretations. There is the obvious assumption that discord lives among the people in this home. The writer may also be suggesting, however, something that is not simply anger among family members, but an angry life. He has described his father as hard-working with sore and painful hands. Perhaps the individuals are not angry but the life those individuals live is difficult and the anger Hayden references is a metaphor for that difficult life.
If Hayden is using personification, he is attributing human emotion (anger) to an inanimate object. In this case, Hayden could be telling us that the anger, whether literal from the individuals or as a reflection of the life they have, seems to permeate the very walls. Hayden uses the plural “angers” (9), an interesting word choice suggesting to the reader there are multiple sources: the anger of different people; the difficulty from different aspects like money, food, family relationships. And Hayden calls these “chronic angers” (9), meaning they continue or return, and whatever the source or reason, Hayden is afraid of them. It is important to remember, however, that Hayden is recalling his childhood. He does not say he is fearful now; that was a child’s perspective.
The third and final stanza of Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” begins with a continuation of the author’s description of his own behavior “Speaking indifferently to him,” (10). The reader is given a slightly different perspective of the relationship between the author and his father. Earlier we see a man regretting that he did not see his father’s struggle when he was a child, or appreciate his father’s hard work. But line 10 gives us the impression that the child Hayden remembers may have contributed in his own childish way to the angers he feared. On the other hand, perhaps the indifference Hayden describes is a result of the angers. Hayden is ambiguous about the relationship the two had when the author was young. He is not ambiguous looking back, however.
Hayden writes, with regard to his childhood treatment of his father, that this was the man “who had driven out the cold/and polished my good shoes as well.” (11-12). The adult can look back with adult eyes and see what the child could not: that his father did these things out of love for his son.
Hayden rhetorically asks “What did I know, what did I know” (13). Just as in line 5, “No one ever thanked him.” we feel Hayden’s regret in not recognizing as the child what is clear to the adult. There is a tone of resignation in the line that is not explained or clarified. The next line however, continuing his question of himself “what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely offices?” (13-14), demonstrates the author has learned a lesson and gained an understanding of his father’s stern (austere) obligations (offices). By using the rhetorical question, the author is suggesting he knows the answer: he knew nothing as a child; he could know nothing because he was a child. “Love’s austere and lonely offices” (14) are a reference to the duties of parents or caretakers. And these are things children cannot be expected to know. But it is clear by the whole tone of “Those Winter Sundays”, Hayden wishes he could have known and regrets that he did not. Now, however, as an adult, Hayden knows that the many thankless things his father was doing, starting fires, rising early to work every day, shining shoes, were his father’s way of showing his family how much he loved them.
In the strictest terms, “Those Winter Sundays” lacks the rhyme and the iambic pentameter that would make it a traditional sonnet. However, the poem does have fourteen lines and it is clearly about love, although not the traditional romantic love of most sonnets.
There are several themes in Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”. It is about love although the author’s understanding of it is in retrospect. The poem is also about sacrifice. It gives the reader an understanding of the lengths a parent will go as a matter of unexceptional daily patterns even though it is exceptional whether that is recognized or not. And it is about youth, and the blindness of youth which veil cannot be lifted until adulthood sets in.
Hayden, Robert. Those Winter Sundays. PoetryFoundation.org, 2015. Web. 5 February 2016.