By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Those Winter Sundays’ is a 1962 poem by the American poet and essayist Robert Hayden (1913-80). It is probably his most widely anthologised and frequently studied poem, and arose from Hayden’s own conflicted feelings towards his foster father.
You can read ‘Those Winter Sundays’ here (the poem takes around one minute to read) before reading on to our summary and analysis of Hayden’s poem below.
‘Those Winter Sundays’: summary
The poem is divided into three stanzas of, respectively, five lines, four lines, and five lines. In the first stanza, the speaker of the poem recalls how on Sundays his father would get up early and put his clothes on while it was extremely cold.
His hands, which ached from hard work out in the cold weather all week, had cracked skin. He would use those hands to light fires to warm the family, but nobody ever thanked him for doing this.
In the second stanza, the speaker recalls waking up to hear the cold air breaking as the warmth of the fire spread through the house. Once the rooms of the house had warmed up, his father would call to him and he would slowly get up and get dressed, afraid of the ‘angers’ that he had experienced in the house: namely, the anger of his father.
The poem’s third and final stanza then sees the speaker remembering how he would speak in an indifferent or uncaring manner to his father, even though this was the man who had driven the cold weather out of the house. His father had also polished his son’s smart shoes (ready for church, perhaps?).
The poem ends with the speaker chastising himself for being ignorant, as a young boy, of the hard and lonely things people do for love – such as his father performing these thankless tasks in the cold, all for the love of his family.
‘Those Winter Sundays’: analysis
Hayden’s poem is often analysed alongside Theodore Roethke’s ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ (1948), another twentieth-century American poem in which the poet expresses his ambivalent feelings towards his father.
In both ‘Those Winter Sundays’ and Roethke’s poem, the child is now an adult and has a broader and deeper understanding of the world, although Hayden’s poem more explicitly gives voice to the adult poet’s more sympathetic appreciation of what his father was like, while he also rebukes his own immaturity and thanklessness in the face of his father’s ‘austere and lonely offices’.
The word ‘offices’ here carries the meaning of ‘a position of work or service’, as in ‘office of state’; the word also carries a religious flavour, as in ‘holy office’, which is appropriate to the poem for two reasons: its Sunday setting, and the devotional nature of the father’s kind actions for his family.
The poem ushers us into the poet’s confidence with its colloquial opening (‘Sundays too’, as if he had already been engaging us in conversation about his childhood memories), powerfully summoning the cold winters with the harsh plosive consonants (‘blueblack’) and the hard ‘k’ sounds (‘cold’, ‘cracked’, ‘ached’).
The caesura or mid-line pause in the fifth line brings the description of the fire’s effects on the house to a close, the (almost) five-line sentence giving way to a second, much shorter five-word statement of fact: ‘No one ever thanked him.’
The second stanza moves from the father’s activities elsewhere in the house to the speaker’s own actions: in marked contrast to his father’s active work, the boy gets up ‘slowly’ and then, in the next stanza, talks ‘indifferently’ to his father. Where his father clearly loves and cares for his family and his early morning actions reveal this, his son makes no effort to show his love in return.
Yet the poem is more complex than a simple act of self-castigation, whereby the adult speaker realises how unappreciative he was of his father’s kind labours.
There is something sinister lurking in the reference to the ‘chronic angers’ of the house: this ambiguous line suggests the violent creaking of the wood in the house (as the fire spreads through it and warms up the rooms), but also hints at an angry and sometimes tempestuous home life for the boy. His father works hard for the family all week, and there are, the poem suggests, occasional flare-ups of anger.
This is already prefigured in the violent ‘splintering’ and ‘breaking’ of the house as the fire becomes stronger: what is here carried out as an act of love and (literal) warmth also carries the potential for destruction.
The final two lines of ‘Those Winter Sundays’, however, returns us to the adult speaker’s regret at his ignorance: he did not realise how hard and lonely his father’s life could be, but now he is wiser and more mature, he understands. The repetition of the initial part of the question in the penultimate line, along with another caesura, gives both poet and reader pause: how foolish he was not to realise how much his father did for him and the family?
‘Those Winter Sundays’: form
Hayden’s poem is interesting in terms of the form he uses to express these childhood reminiscences. ‘Those Winter Sundays’ has fourteen lines and some lines broadly follow an iambic pentameter metre, but although both of these features are associated with the sonnet, Hayden’s poem does not rhyme. This lends the poem a freer and more conversational feel which is appropriate for the intimate family memory being shared.
Moreover, ‘Those Winter Sundays’ does not stick slavishly to the iambic pentameter rhythm. Although the first line has ten syllables, as in the typical iambic pentameter line, it does not follow a strict iambic metre. The third line, meanwhile, contains just six syllables, or three iambs.
Although Hayden’s poem contains what T. S. Eliot referred to as the ‘ghost’ of a metre behind its lines, its family memories are cast into a looser and more relaxed form than strict pentameter would allow.