“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?”
-Those Winter Sundays, Robert Hayden
Poetry can be read in different ways due to the frequent use of symbolism and metaphor, oftentimes leading to different interpretations of the poem depending on the reader. Some poems are meant to be straightforward, while others have a higher potential to vary in meaning. “Those Winter Sundays” is a sonnet in which the depths of the speaker’s childhood are probed in a literary display of human psychology. This work by Robert Hayden is a perfect example of a poem in which the author supplies sufficient information through the literary elements for readers to come to a consensus on a single understanding of what the poem really means. The main idea of the poem is to explicate how a person (male for the purpose of this essay) feels about what his father did for him as a child, from his perspective as an adult looking back upon his childhood. Although the poem has no definite rhyme scheme or meter, it’s categorized as a sonnet because it’s comprised of 14 lines. It may be difficult to grasp at first sight, but “Those Winter Sundays” makes use of structure, wordplay, personification, and other literary elements to help the reader to experience the poem in depth, as well as embrace the essence of the poem and understand more about the speaker emotionally.
The structure of “Those Winter Sundays” subtly contributes to the tone of the poem through the way it progresses. It’s comprised of 14 lines, broken up into three stanzas; the first stanza describes the speaker’s father’s actions every Sunday morning, the second focuses on the speaker’s portrayal of Sunday mornings at home with his father, and the third stanza outlines the speaker’s regret for not appreciating what his father did for him as a child. Because of the way it’s structured, the first stanza builds a strong feeling of respect towards the father, who “made banked fires blaze,” even though it was “blueblack cold” on those winter Sundays (4-5). His hands were cracked and ached “from labor in the weekday weather” (3-4). The first stanza typically portrays the father as a hard working, responsible, caring father who labors to support his son. The final line in the first stanza, “No one ever thanked him” invokes an unsettling feeling, implying that the father wasn’t appreciated for his work (5). Tragic. The second stanza introduces the son, who would wake, and “slowly… rise and dress” (6-8). The choice of words in this stanza, specifically “rise” and “fearing the chronic angers of that house” in the next line, imply that the son wasn’t typically enthusiastic about living in that home (8-9). He uses “that” when directing his fear of the “chronic angers” towards his home, symbolizing a lack of a connection between him and his home because his house is “chronically angry” (9). It should be implied that his father is the cause of the anger at home, since “Those Winter Sundays” as a whole is a reflection of how the speaker should have appreciated his father while he was young, logically suggesting that he was not content with his father as a child; since “angry” is the only emotional adjective used to describe the memory of the speaker’s childhood in the second stanza, it’s crystal clear that his father “chronically” carried an attitude that engraved the negative image of the speaker’s home in his childhood (9). The use of the word “cold” throughout the poem may also symbolize hardship in the boy’s life, rather than just the literal lack of heat. After all, a son who is displeased with his father typically will not regret his unappreciation later in life all because his father used to crank the heat up on chilly mornings. The “cold” may symbolize the hurdles in the son’s life in which the father intervened; “When the rooms were warm, he’d call,” would suggest that the father would help the son through the difficulties of his childhood (7). That’s a much more believable cause for the speaker’s regretful attitude towards the way he regarded his father in adulthood.
There is also a conflict in ideas in the second paragraph which can logically be resolved through analyzing the wordplay; the father is “chronically angry,” yet he only calls the boy “once the rooms were warm,” reiterating the father’s caring personality as introduced in the first stanza (7-9). How could the house be personified as “chronically angry” if the father is so compassionate towards his son? Well, the speaker admits in the third stanza that he mistook the father’s tough love for mistreatment in the last two lines with “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices” (13-4). The speaker repeats his question of “What did I know, what did I know” to emphasize the urgency of his discontent with how wrong he was about his father’s intentions and how he should have been more grateful for his labors; he realizes that he was naive in regards to “love’s austere and lonely offices,” and that as a child, he mistook his father’s “chronic anger” (strict parenting) for abuse and neglect (13-4). The use of the word “lonely” when describing “love’s austere… offices” further invokes the feeling of humility and respect towards the father because it suggests that the father understood how his son felt about him as a child, yet his compassion for the speaker still forced him to pursue what was best for him, in both the literal and metaphorical sense of “driving out the cold,” even if it would cause his naive son’s disapproval, and an “angry” home (11). The structure and organization of “Those Winter Sundays,” as well as the frequent use of wordplay, both contributed heavily to the emotional and internal elements of the poem.
Poetry is art, and authors are simply artists. A poem is just compressed ideas, as is a painting when limiting the mental visualization of an idea and compressing it to fit a canvas. There are many ways to incorporate literary mechanisms into poetry to make it more thoughtful, as well as enrich it with meaning beyond what the words can say. “Those Winter Sundays” incorporates literary elements very efficiently to tell a story beyond what the 14 lines say with words alone. There are many other literary elements used within the sonnet that also contribute significantly to its deeper meaning, but the point is that “Those Winter Sundays” should not be read by the words alone; to fully understand it, you must understand that poems are compressed ideas and stories, and you much search between the lines through literary elements such as the utilization of structure, wordplay, rhyme scheme, meter, alliteration, assonance, synesthesia, etc. in order to fully grasp a poem in its entirety. “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden is an excellent example of a poem that can be read for just the words and mistaken for a bland story about an unappreciative boy, but by analyzing the mechanics that Robert Hayden incorporated into the poem, the reader is exposed to the raw emotion transmitted through the literary elements which enrich the experience, breathing life into the poetry, and without them, the poem would just be letters on a page. This literary work by Hayden was my initial inspiration to write as a coping mechanism.
Hayden, Robert. “Those Winter Sundays.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Portable 10th ed. Ed. Alison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. New York: Norton, 2010. 1024-1129. Print.