Robert Hayden was an American poet who was born on 4 August 1913 in Detroit, Michigan, USA and who died on 25 February 1980 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hayden was the first African-American writer ever to serve at the Library of Congress as a Consultant in Poetry. Apart from poetry, he is also known for his essays.
Hayden’s collections of poetry are Heart Shape in the Dust (1940), Figure of Time (1955), A Ballad of Remembrance (1962), Selected Poems (1966), Words in the Mourning Time (1970), The Night-Blooming Cereus (1972), Angels of Ascent: New and Selected Poems (1975), and American Journal (1978). Likewise, his Collected Prose was published posthumously in 1984.
‘Those Winter Sundays’ is one of Hayden’s most popular poems that talk about his traumatic childhood. His parents separated before his birth and he was brought up by foster parents. Hayden’s poor and troublesome family life during his childhood is vividly reflected by ‘Those Winter Sundays’. So, let’s get deeper into the poem through its summary, analysis, and theme in separate sections below.
Those Winter Sundays Summary
Robert Hayden’s ‘Those Winter Sundays’ is a memory poem in which the speaker talks about his past. Now, the speaker is a grown-up man who remembers his father’s love for him as a child and which he didn’t understand back then.
In Those Winter Sundays, the speaker reveals that his father got up early every day and made a fire. Then, he would call his son who would slowly rise and dress, fearing that chronic anger might burst in the house. Furthermore, the speaker’s father also polished the good shoes for his son.
Despite all these, no one ever thanked the father. Instead, everyone talked to him indifferently, not acknowledging the grand role he had in the house. The speaker of Those Winter Sundays also remembers the fact that his father’s hands were cracked and aching from weekday labor. Nevertheless, nobody ever knew what it took him to keep the family going.
Those Winter Sundays Analysis
Robert Hayden’s poem Those Winter Sundays has fourteen lines in total, and it has three stanzas. Both first and last stanzas are five-lined whereas the second stanza has only four lines. If we do a close-reading of the poem, we can see a painful story. Hence, let’s make an analysis of each stanza of Hayden’s poem Those Winter Sundays.
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 ablaze. No one ever thanked him.
The first stanza of the poem Those Winter Sundays opens with the phrase ‘Sundays too’. So, why is the word ‘too’ after Sunday? Sunday is normally a rest day for the Western folks and they are supposed to sleep till late in the morning to get rid of the weeklong painful labor.
The synesthetic word ‘blueblack’ in the second line shows the time of dawn in the winter when the sky is bluish-black in color. It literally means early morning. We know that the speaker’s father works in a field which is reflected by his cracked and aching hands.
The last sentence of the first stanza gives a hint that there are more people than just the father and the son in the family. Had there been only the father-son duo, the speaker would have said ‘I never thanked him’ but he says ‘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,
The trio of ‘cold’, ‘splintering’ and ‘breaking’ reflect the environment inside the family. Since it is the winter, they might as well mean the breaking of icicles. ‘When the rooms were warm’ might mean when his father was happy. Only when his father was overjoyed, the speaker would be called to him.
Yet another word ‘slowly’ shows the fact that he is aware of the wrong family environment. On one hand, ‘the chronic fits of the anger of that house’ means the father’s anger toward him. On the other hand, it also might mean that there are other members of the family who are jealous of the love the speaker gets from his father.
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?
We already knew everyone spoke to the father indifferently and they also never thanked him for his sacrifice. In a literal sense, the speaker’s father drove out the cold by making a fire. It might also connote that he fulfilled the needs of the family and made peace with them.
We cannot say that shoes always mean the literal shoes that we wear. ‘polished my good shoes as well’ might actually mean that his father made the speaker able to walk and live independently.
In the last two lines of the poem, Those Winter Sundays, the speaker regrets that he could not understand the love his father gave him. He says ‘What did I know’ twice which means he is emphasizing his remorse for knowing the truth late. Despite being hard to him, the speaker realizes that his father always meant the best for his son.
Those Winter Sundays Theme
There are multiple themes of Robert Hayden’s poem Those Winter Sundays. It has the themes of memory, family, love, regret, poverty and more.