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Robert Hayden wrote the poem “Those Winter Sundays” in 1962. The speaker of the poem, who is an adult, remembers how, when he was a boy, his father would get up early on Sunday mornings throughout the winter to start a fire and warm the home before anybody else got out of bed. At the time, the speaker didn’t understand how much his father loved his family in these and other ways. He only comes to grasp the frequently selfless and unappreciative character of love after reflecting on these recollections as an adult.
About the poet
Robert Hayden was a poet who lived in the 20th century, and his writings are recognized for both their literary and social value. Being the first African American appointed as a poetry consultant to the US Congress was one of Hayden’s greatest literary achievements, and many of his works reflect his passion for history, particularly African American history.
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.
The narrator starts the story by recalling how hard his father worked to take care of his duties. There is much evidence in this stanza to demonstrate the level of sacrifice and effort this work ethic needed. The first two words provide the reader a hint about the father’s continued work schedule because the speaker says “Sundays too” rather than just “Sundays were a day of labour.” That information indicates that the father worked all throughout the week, which is so obvious that it is not necessary to expound on the “weekday” workload.
For this parent, work started “early” on those “Sundays,” and it was hardly a nice environment in which to begin. Instead, he was forced to start his daily tasks while being “cold” and dealing with the aftereffects of previous workloads, such as “cracked hands that ached.” It is also important to note that in the first verse, the only work that is particularly spoken to is that he set the “fires ablaze,” which indicates love for his family that he himself did not experience. Keep in mind that he “put his clothing on in the blueback cold,” after all.
But the line “No one ever praised him” concludes the first verse of “Those Winter Sundays.” Given how hard the father worked to secure the child’s comfort and well-being, this comment is the beginning of an ardent argument against the child who would allow such gestures to pass without a word of gratitude.
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,
The speaker’s admission that he wasn’t awake when the father started working provides the reader with additional proof of the father’s excellent work ethic. He would “wake and hear the cold splintering, cracking,” as opposed to that. The fact that “the rooms were warm” by the time he was awakened by the “call” his father would send him demonstrates the father’s level of concern. He didn’t simply light the fire to please his child; he also waited to “wake” him from slumber until the chill in the room subsided.
Since “slowly [he] would rise and dress,” the child didn’t appear to be in a rush to assist his father with everyday tasks. This provides further evidence to the reader that the father made an effort to improve his child’s existence above his own. The final line of this stanza introduces a puzzling possibility into the issue because, despite the fact that the boy appeared to have every reason to appreciate his father, he nonetheless “fear[ed] the chronic angers of that house.”
The adult who was once the child in this situation recalls these incidents by referring to them as “chronic angers,” among other explanations being that the “home” itself was crumbling. If this is the case, another reason to be grateful for the father arises from the idea that the child was terrified of what he dealt with. The father carried out his responsibilities despite the issues as the child fretted over the state of the house.
However, it’s also likely that these “chronic angers” are referred to as a sign of conflict between the father and the child. The idea that the child did not express thanks has already been established, therefore it is plausible that the father might be offended or resentful if he knew about this disdain.
The boy might not have thanked his father because he was angry with his father for abusing him physically or emotionally, which would change the poem’s theme. This is a worse possibility. If such were the case, the boy would have had good reason to withhold his thanks due to the horrible treatment by his father, issues that went much deeper than whether or not a fire was lit in the mornings. There isn’t much more information provided on the subject, so the reader must wait until the final verse to make a choice.
Whatever the “angers” were, it is obvious that they persisted because they were “chronic.”
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?
It appears that the possibility that the father in this stanza of “Those Winter Sundays” is abusive lessens as the speaker acknowledges that his father had supported him during times of “cold” and by preparing his “good shoes,” as well as because the speaker in later years refers to his father’s feelings for him as “love.” This pairing of ideas with the word “austere,” which denotes a rigid setting, may provide the second stanza’s missing information. The father may have been severe (but not abusive) in his parenting in a way that a child would dislike, which is the possible cause of the conflict, or “the chronic angers.”
This notion is strengthened by the speaker’s apparent lack of the tension he had displayed toward his father, as evidenced by the way he “[talked] indifferently to” him. Instead, it appears that the speaker has used his years of experience and development to analyze the situation and come to the conclusion that as a young person, he just did not comprehend: “What did I know, what did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
Since no other characters are mentioned as being a member of the speaker’s family, readers can assume that the speaker now understands why his father was strict and how “lonely” his fatherhood had to be given the tension between them if this logic is applied to the entire poem. Because his father was never shown the gratitude he deserved, what was once anger directed toward the father seems to have changed into anger directed towards himself.
Overall, the poem can leave the reader with regret over a wasted youth and a broken romance; Hayden may have intended for this melancholy to be the poem’s haunting detail. Despite the “love” that was evident, time and misunderstanding kept the father and child apart, and this gap was never bridged.