Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden is a three-stanza work where the sections vary in length, though the theme remains from start to finish. The poem is a narrative of a time when the speaker’s father would care for his family in ways that went unappreciated, even though the speaker gives indications that the work done by his father was something worth appreciation. In fact, the speaker notes that he benefited from that work, but with no gratification shown toward his father. This concept is prevalent in the poem’s lines, and eventually it becomes clear that the un-thankful child has become an adult who criticizes his youthful lack of gratitude, though he links the fault with his early inability to understand his father’s struggles. In the end, it seems, the relationship faltered because of the division created by misunderstanding, and no inclination is given that it was ever repaired. The end result is a poem that is encumbered with guilt. The full poem can be read here.
Those Winter Sundays Analysis
Diving directly into a general recollection from his youth, the narrator begins the account of how hard the father worked to tend to his responsibilities, and there is plenty of evidence within the stanza to showcase the level of sacrifice and effort this work ethic required. In the first two lines, the reader can note one clue regarding the father’s ongoing work schedule since the speaker doesn’t just say “Sundays” were a day of work, but “Sundays too.” What that detail denotes is that the father has worked throughout the week, something that is such a given that the “weekday” workload does not need to be elaborately addressed.
On those “Sundays,” the work began “early” for this father, and he hardly started his efforts in pleasant circumstances. Instead, he had to commence his daily labors in “cold” and with lingering effects from prior workloads, like “cracked hands that ached.” It is worth noting as well that the only task that is specifically labeled in this first stanza is that he started the “fires ablaze,” which showcases a care being extended toward his family that he himself did not experience. Remember, after all, that he “put his clothes on in the blueback cold.”
The stanza ends with the declaration, though, that “No one ever thanked him.” This statement begins an impassioned case against the child who would let such actions go without a word of gratitude, given how much the father worked to ensure the child’s comfort and well-being.
Once more, the reader is introduced to evidence that the father’s work ethic was great since the speaker is stating that he was not awake when the father started working. Rather, he would “wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.” By the time he was awoken by the “call” his father would send him, “the rooms were warm” already, which again shows a level of care from the father. He didn’t just start the fire to cater to his child, but he also didn’t “wake” his child from sleep until the room had lost its chill.
The child, it seemed, felt no rush to join his father in the daily chores since “slowly [he] would rise and dress,” so again the reader is met with indications that the father went out of his way to make the existence of his child better than his own. However, in the final line of this stanza, a confusing prospect is brought into the discussion in that, while the child seemingly had every reason to appreciate the father, he held some sort of fear in his living situation—he “fear[ed] the chronic angers of that house.”
There are a number of possible explanations, one being that the “house” itself was falling apart, and the adult who was once the child in this situation reminisces on these issues by labeling them “chronic angers.” If such is the case, the notion that the child was afraid of what the father dealt with creates another reason why the father was worthy of gratitude. As the child worried over the disrepair of the house, the father continued his duties in spite of the problems.
It is also possible, though, that these “chronic angers” are referenced as an indication of tension shared between the father and child. Already, the concept that the child neglected to show gratitude has been established, so the father knowing of this disregard and being hurt or resentful over it is conceivable.
A worse prospect is that the child could have neglected to thank the father out of resentment for some kind emotional neglect or physical abuse that the father inflicted on him, which would alter the theme of this poem. If that were the case, the child would have had reason to withhold his gratitude because of the poor treatment at the hands of his father, issues that ran much deeper than whether or not a fire was going in the mornings. With little else being said on the matter, the reader must wait until the final stanza to arrive at an informed decision on the matter.
Whatever the “angers,” were, their “chronic” nature makes it clear that they were ongoing.
In this stanza, it seems, the idea that the father is abusive loses a portion of possibility as the speaker admits that his father had been there for him against the “cold” and through preparing his “good shoes,” and because the speaker in his older years describes his father’s feelings for him as “love.” He pairs that idea with “austere,” indicating a strict environment, and that detail could grant the missing information from the second stanza. The reason for the tension, “the chronic angers,” could be that the father was strict (not abusive) in his parenting in a way that a child would resent.
This idea is further cemented since the speaker does not seem to hold the same tension toward his father that he had in his youth—such as how he “[spoke] indifferently to” his father. Instead, the speaker seems to have applied years of wisdom and growth to the situation to conclude that as a child, he simply had not understood: “What did I know, what did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices.”
If this logic is applied to the entire poem, readers can infer that the speaker now sympathizes with his father since he can now understand why his father was stern and how “lonely” his parenthood had to be given the tension between them—particularly since no other characters are referenced as having been a part of their household. What used to be frustration toward the father seems to have turned into frustration with himself because his father was never granted the gratitude he’d rightly earned.
Overall, the reader can leave this poem feeling the regret of youth wasted and a relationship that was never healed, and that grief could be what Hayden intended as the lingering detail of the work. Time and misunderstanding separated the father and child, regardless of the “love” present, and that separation was never overcome.
About Robert Hayden
Robert Hayden was a 20th century poet whose works are renowned not only for their literary capacity, but also from a social perspective. One of the most significant honors of Hayden’s career as a writer was to be the first African American Consultant of Poetry for the United States Congress, and many of his works were constructed with his interest in history in mind—particularly African American history.