Some Words on Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”

Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

The best poems accomplish a transcendence of time and space, acting on each new reader or generation of readers with astonishing ease. All barriers melt away – culture, race, gender, what you will – leaving only what is most essentially human in the communication between poet and reader created by the poem. In method, such an accomplishment is demanding and complex, but in effect it often appears with great simplicity, as in the above poem. To feel the remorse of Hayden’s narrator at the belated recognition of his father’s love is not difficult; the poem opens itself up easily to even the least attentive of readers. To understand, however, how Hayden creates this feeling, how he infuses it with an authenticity that separates his poem from so many Hallmark cards, and to recognize its true scope, requires a closer examination of his methods.

The poem’s opening stanza establishes important information about the father – that his job involves outdoor physical labor, that his commitment to his family extends beyond the work week to “Sundays too” – and is punctuated by the terse declarative: “No one ever thanked him.” That his work, emphasized by the hard consonant sounds and monosyllables “made / banked fires blaze,” continues without gratitude only adds to his character by demonstrating the intensity of his commitment to his family.

The poem’s tone is a function of its tense: we are offered only a retrospective glimpse at the narrator’s childhood, with its house of “chronic angers.” The third stanza makes explicit what to this point has been only subtext: the narrator’s lament at his inability to comprehend, appreciate or show gratitude for his father’s love. The repetition of “What did I know” reinforces his regret but the final question, ostensibly posed by the narrator to himself, invites our own reflection on “love’s austere and lonely offices.” These offices, exemplified by his father’s work habits, his warming of the house and his polishing of the shoes, are what Wordsworth termed “the best portion of a good man’s life, / His little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.” The poem’s conclusion invites us to meditate on this aspect of love: not the grand, romantic gestures that are the domain of Hollywood and fairy tales, but the more subtle and certainly less glamorous means by which love is demonstrated: the silent duties and sacrifices unnoticed.

Hayden’s artfulness extends to what he omits: we can only surmise as to the current status of the father and his relationship with the narrator, or what, exactly, constituted the “chronic angers” of his childhood, but his lament seems to suggest the impossibility of reconciliation, hinting that, perhaps, the father for whom he feels such remorse and affection has died.