Have you ever looked back on an experience and gained a new understanding of it? Sometimes, with time and distance, we can look back on our lives and realize things we didn’t see at the time. This idea forms the basis for Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays” (1962)—a poem that discovers a father’s love only in retrospect.
|Title||“Those Winter Sundays”|
|Publication title||A Ballad of Remembrance|
|Form||No set form|
|Structure||3 stanzas, 14 lines in total|
|Themes||Father/child relationship, maturity, memory|
|Imagery||Cold and warmth|
|Poetic devices||Contrast, varying sentence structure|
|Meaning||The speaker recalls their father’s acts of love which went unnoticed as a child.|
Robert Hayden (1913–1980) had a tumultuous childhood. Living with foster parents in a disadvantaged neighborhood, he was exposed to many episodes of physical and verbal violence. He wrote “Those Winter Sundays” while teaching English at Fisk University, and many believe the poem is based on his childhood experiences. “Those Winter Sundays” would become one of the most frequently anthologized poems for high school and college students.
Robert Hayden broke many barriers for African American poets. During his teaching fellowship, he was the first Black faculty member in the University of Michigan’s Department of English, and in 1976, he was the first Black poet appointed to the Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress (a position which is now called United States Poet Laureate). His study of American and African American history, as well as his own experience as a Black man, compelled him to write poems from various historical perspectives, such as those of Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Nat Turner.
The speaker opens the poem by reminiscing about early Sunday mornings from their childhood. Speaking from a matured perspective, the speaker recalls how their father would wake up before everyone else and, “in the blueblack cold” (line 2), begin to warm the house by making a fire. The speaker details the father’s hands here, which are rough and aching from his manual labor during the week. The speaker then remarks bluntly that “no one ever thanked him” (line 5).
The speaker continues to remember how they would wake up quietly and slowly, fearing they might disturb the house or their father. There is a sense of uneasiness here, as the speaker recalls “the chronic angers of the house” (line 9). This, along with the imagery in the first two stanzas, suggests the house was tense, harsh, and cold—the speaker felt uncomfortable and distant, especially from the father.
However, now that the speaker has aged and is looking back on their childhood, they no longer feel this way. Instead, the speaker asks a rhetorical question at the end: “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” (lines 13-14). A question that really is a statement: “I did not realize my father’s tender acts of love.”
|Line||“Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden|
|1||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?
As you read through the analysis, pay close attention to the poem’s title when interpreting it. A poem’s title often provides context and points to the meaning of the poem. In this case, “Those Winter Sundays” implies a memory of the past. Use this nugget of information to guide your reading and analysis of the poem.
There are two contrasting ideas present in the poem: cold and warmth. Words and phrases such as “blueblack cold” (line 2) and “hear the cold splintering, breaking” (line 6) suggest the overall feeling of the house. Conditions were harsh and icy, presumably leaving the speaker feeling unsettled at home. Yet the father wakes early to make the house warm. His hands “made … fires blaze” (lines 4-5), and he had “driven out the cold” (line 11). This contrast highlights the appreciation the speaker now has for their father. When looking back on this time in their life, the speaker remembers the cold and uncomfortable feeling, yet they feel a sense of warmth and appreciation when the speaker reflects on it now.
The entire poem, which is fourteen lines long, contains only four sentences. Hayden uses a mix of long, complex sentences with inverted syntax and straightforward, simple ones. Doing so allows him to emphasize the winding nature of the speaker’s memory and the stark realization of present-day appreciation. For example, in the first stanza, the first complete sentence reads, “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” (lines 1 - 5). The length and complexity of this sentence imply the comparable complexity of memory. It is a bit foggy and not easy to understand.
Yet, the next sentence, “No one ever thanked him” (line 5), is only five words long. This cuts through the messiness of the early childhood memory and brings clarity, just as the speaker is now having clarity about their father’s love. This kind of stark, matter-of-fact statement is also a clue to the reader about one of the poem’s major themes: appreciation of what once went unnoticed.
Tone: this accentuates the speaker’s attitude(s) toward their subject.
The speaker’s tone in “Those Winter Sundays” is mature, appreciative, and nostalgic. Despite the negative things the speaker mentions about their childhood, such as the “chronic angers” of the house (line 9) and the emotional distance between the speaker and the father, the overall feeling is one of gratitude. This is most apparent in the final two lines, which read: “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” (lines 13 - 14). The repetition of “what did I know” demonstrates how the speaker did not realize all that the father had done for the family. The speaker also acknowledges how the father’s love is “austere” (line 14), meaning it lacks in adornment and is strict in manner. The father’s love is also lonely, without a proper witness.
Within the mere fourteen lines of “Those Winter Sundays,” multiple themes are found, including maturity and memory, the father and child relationship, and unnoticed acts of love.
Implied in the poem is the effect of aging on one’s memory. Although we don’t know the age of the speaker, we can safely assume that the speaker is grown up and no longer that child from “those winter Sundays.” Gaining distance and life experience helps one to see the past more clearly. Although the speaker recalls feeling fear upon waking and trying to minimize interaction with the father, they ultimately realize that the father exhibited acts of love by warming the house and polishing the speaker’s shoes (line 12). Without the time separation between the experience and the re-telling of it, the speaker may not have had these insights.
The poem also explores the relationship between father and child. Much is unspoken between to two. The father wakes before everyone else to prepare the house, and no one ever thanks him for this. As an adult, the speaker is attempting to reconcile this unspoken thankfulness by asking the rhetorical question, “What did I know… of love’s austere and lonely offices?” (13-14). The speaker uses that question to reflect on all that the father did do for the family instead of focusing solely on the harsh conditions at home.
This poem, ultimately, is about not appreciating what we have at the moment. It’s only upon reflecting—and having a wider perspective—that we can really understand the full picture of something. The speaker thinks back to a specific period: the winter Sunday mornings of their childhood. Through recalling the father’s charitable acts, the speaker gains an enlarged understanding of the father’s love.
Some readers interpret the final lines as an expression of guilt: the speaker is remorseful over not being aware of their father’s tenderness. Others interpret the final lines as reassurance that the speaker, as a child, could not have known about their father’s acts of love. Our interpretations may vary–which is the sign of a good poem.
The poem “Those Winter Sundays” is about realizing much later in life the acts of love a father once did.
Although there is no explicit description of abuse in “Those Winter Sundays,” the speaker implies the conditions at home were harsh and uncomfortable.
The line “hands that ached … made banked fires blaze” (lines 3-5) means the father warmed the house by stoking the fire in the fireplace.
The tone of the poem “Those Winter Sundays” is mature, appreciative, and nostalgic for the past.
“Those Winter Sundays” is not explicitly about abuse; instead, it’s about the speaker realizing the acts of love the father did that went unobserved.
Who wrote "Those Winter Sundays"?
What is the meaning of "Those Winter Sundays"?
The speaker in "Those Winter Sundays" recalls their father's acts of love which went unnoticed as a child.
When did Robert Hayden write "Those Winter Sundays"?
Robert Hayden wrote "Those Winter Sundays" in 1962.
What is contrasted in the poem? How does this relate to the father?
Two images contrasted in the poem are cold and warmth. This relates to the father because it indicates the speaker's shift in understanding. The father, who was once cold, is now seen as a warm figure.
What effect does the long complex sentence followed by a short simple sentence in the first stanza have?
It provides clarity, which mirrors what the speaker feels.
What is the tone of "Those Winter Sundays"?
The tone of "Those Winter Sundays" is mature, nostalgic, and appreciative.
Why do some readers interpret the ending of the poem differently than others?
Some people have a different interpretation of the ending because it is a god poem; therefore, it uses language and style that allow for ambiguity.
What does the poem say about maturity and memory?
The poem says that when someone matures, they gain a new perspective, and their memories of past events may change.
What does "chronic angers" refer to in line 9?
"Chronic angers" refers to the general feeling of tension, harshness, and discomfort for the speaker during their childhood.
What does "austere" mean?
"Austere" means lacking in adornment or having a strict, severe manner.
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