An Explication of Robert Hayden’s Those Winter Sundays
Published 20 Sep 2017
The traditional father is the provider of the family. He is out at work most of the day. He is burdened with the responsibility of ensuring the security of the other members. With the gravity of his role, he is sometimes perceived as a distant and detached figured, in contrast with the warm and nurturing image of the mother. The father’s burden is further compounded by a socially-perceived expectation that males have to be less emotional as a sign of strength in character. In Robert Hayden’s sonnet, Those Winter Sundays, the persona laments at the emotional distance that he had with his father growing up, and how he wishes he had given him more love and respect than he deserved for what he did for him.
The first stanza, comprising of five lines, begin with establishing the setting already stated in the title and the central image that those Sundays in the past evoke. On Sunday, his”father got up early” (1) long before anyone else in the house has awaken to put on a fire to warm the house. Sunday was a time when the father could have chosen to stay later in bed after”labor in the weekday” (4), but he got up in the biting cold for the sake of his family. The image evoked by the father’s”cracked hands” (3) further emphasizes this hard-working character. The final line of the first stanza is simple yet powerful:”No one ever thanked him” (5). Here is a father who seems to live a life in self-sacrifice yet his efforts are taken for granted.
The second stanza shifts to the speaker, the son. After his father has put the fires ablaze, he calls out to his son. While in bed, the young boy would hear the”cold splintering and breaking”, the words projecting an aural quality to the feeling of being warmed. Throughout the poem, Hayden’s original use of language in describing things is notable in that he is able to involve other senses in what would, in reality, only employ one as in the visual description of coldness as being”blueblack” (2) or the more solid texture of”banked fires” (5). The second stanza ends with another unusual imagery yet one that is unusual:”the chronic angers of that house” (9). The line, however, begs for ambiguous interpretation. It could mean the physical defects of the house cause the anger, referring to creaking beams or rumbling pipes. It could also be a tense or abusive relationship between the two characters in the poem.
The final stanza presents the theme of the poem. The speaker here confesses of”speaking indifferently to him (his father) who had driven out the cold.” (10) The indifference is suggested to have been caused by his not being able to understand the sacrifice that a father made to comfort him, his child, to spare him the trouble of doing menial tasks and of being inconvenienced, to protect him from the cold and other harmful elements.”What did I know” (13), the speaker posits the rhetorical question in defense of his indifference in the past. He was only a child, after all. He describes a father’s brand of loving as being those of”austere and lonely offices” (14). Children do not know the type of parental love shown by a father such as the one in the poem. It is isolated to their knowledge of love as being shown only in pleasurable and obvious ways like cuddling, kissing, and playtime together.
The poem is the speaker’s way of thanking his father, albeit belatedly, for his love and the hard work he went through to raise him. Only as a grown-up is he able to realize his father’s love for him. This could be because maybe the speaker has become a father himself. The realization may have come after he has contemplated on his own sacrifices for his children. He may be doing the same simple and everyday tasks for his own children now, just like his father did for him years ago.
- Robert Hayden,”Those Winter Sundays” from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, edited by Frederick Glaysher. Copyright ©1966 by Robert Hayden.