Those Winter Sundays - Robert Hayden

Get this: Robert Hayden was the first African American to be named Poet Laureate of the ol’ US of A (in 1976). Yep, it took until 1976 for an African American to be named Poet Laureate, and the office had been around since 1937. That’s a pretty big deal. Despite the significance of this breakthrough, Hayden didn’t want to be defined by his race. He wanted to be known as an “American poet,” not a “black poet.” Sound revolutionary to you? Maybe not so much? Well, Hayden came under a whole lot of fire from other black artists and writers for not emphasizing his race when he came to prominence as a poet during the 50s and 60s.

He started getting attention at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, at a time when many black writers were embracing their race as an important part (and sometimes as the most important part) of their art and literature. So, our guy Hayden was kind of a rebel for his time.

Sure, he wrote some awesome poems about African-American history and his experiences of being a black man in America, but equally important to Hayden was the collective American history, the common American experience. Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays” is not about race at all. It’s a small but powerful poem about a father-child relationship and all the mixed feelings that come with it: love, admiration, fear, misunderstanding, even hate. We’d even go as far as saying that it’s a universal poem—it transcends race, class, and nation, and we bet that it’s as meaningful to people in India as it is to people in Iowa, and as meaningful to people in Belgium as it is to people in Boston.

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The parent-child relationship that Hayden explores in “Those Winter Sundays” is just so familiar that we wish we could talk to Hayden himself and ask: how did you get in our heads, Mr. H? How did you manage to capture our intimate experiences so clearly, when we haven’t even met? Sadly, Hayden passed away in 1980, so we’ll never get to ask him these questions ourselves. But we’ve got his awesome poem “Those Winter Sundays” to speak to us still, from Iowa to India, from Boston to Belgium. Hayden thought of himself as an American poet, but we think of him as a world poet. A universe poet.

Meet our speaker. And his old man. According to our speaker, his pops gets up super early every Sunday morning to light fires in the fireplaces to warm up their home. Now we here at Shmoop are not morning people, so this is impressive in and of itself. But it’s even more impressive when you learn that his dad is totally tuckered out from an intense work week. Bummer alert: no one, including the speaker, thanks his father for doing this. The speaker then tells us that he’d get out of bed once the house was warm and when his father called for him. He was a little bit afraid of his father, and the house was filled with “chronic angers,” rather than, say, sunshine and rainbows and lollipops. Then, once the speaker had hauled himself out of bed, he’d talk to his dad, but not with any kind of enthusiasm or affection. And this despite the fact that his dad had lit all the fires in his house, and even polished his kid’s shoes. Why’d he do that? Probably because he didn’t know a ton about love back then. We guess the speaker’s grown up now. The speaker implies in the poem’s final lines that he didn’t understand that his father’s behavior (lighting the fires, shining the shoes) was an expression of fatherly love. But now he does.

Stanza 1 – Lines 1-2
Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
Lines 1-2
Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

• In these first two lines, we’ve got an unnamed speaker, and we’ve got our speaker’s father. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll refer to our speaker as a “he,” even though the poem doesn’t specify whether the speaker is male or female.
• So, our speaker begins by telling us that on “Sundays too” his father woke up early. The most important word in this line is that itty-bitty “too,” which suggests that the speaker’s father got up early every day, including Sundays.
• And what day is Sunday? Probably church day—the day of rest. It sounds like the speaker’s father never gets to sleep in. Poor dude. Everyone needs to sleep in once in a while.
• Then the speaker tells us just how early his father wakes; it’s “blueblack” outside. Which means it’s before sunrise. And it’s super cold out. Even the word itself feels cold. When we hear “blueblack,” we feel like were being thwacked in the face by a cold wind. It’s that consonance—that repeated “b” sound that does it to us.
• Also, it’s interesting that the coldness is being described in terms of color (and a made- up color at that), not in terms of feeling. We call this [[synesthesia]]—when one kind of sensory experience (like feeling cold) is experienced by another kind of sensory experience (like seeing blueblack). We’re experiencing two senses at once, which makes this imagery very vivid.

Stanza 1 – Lines 3-5
then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
• So we were already feeling bad for the speaker’s dad, and then we find out more about his life and feel even worse.
• The speaker’s father’s hands are cracked and achy. This guy isn’t going to work during the weekday as an accountant or something cushy like that. He’s doing hard, physical labor. And the results of this labor are visible on his skin.
• But does this stop the speaker’s father? No way. He’s a tough cookie, and he makes the “banked fires blaze,” or, in other words, he lights all of the fires in the fireplaces to warm up the house so that no one else in his family will have to haul their butts out of bed in the blueblack cold.
• Let’s pause here and check out all of these “b” sounds. We’ve got some serious alliteration in these lines. Alliteration is a poetic device in which the beginning sounds of words repeat (“banked” and “blaze,” “weekday weather”). In this poem, all of this alliteration is sounding really harsh, which echoes the cold and unhappy condition of the speaker’s father.
• We’ve also got some assonance going on; we’ve got a bunch of repeated vowel sounds, like the long “a” sounds in “ached” and “blaze.” It’s a slow, mournful sound, which probably isn’t too far a cry from how the dad feels, having to get up and at ’em so early every Sunday.
• Finally, the speaker ends this stanza by telling us that no one ever gave his father props for all his efforts. This poor guy is getting up way early to warm the house for his family and no one ever says thank you? We are starting to feel like the speaker and the rest of his family are a bit ungrateful.
• But wait a second. The speaker seems totally aware of the fact that somebody should have thanked dear old dad for slogging away all those years. But he certainly didn’t seem aware of that fact when all this was going down.
• That’s because this insight comes later in the speaker’s life. When he’s a kid living with his dad, he doesn’t understand all that his father has done for him. But the poem takes place when the speaker is all grown up, and in retrospect, the speaker totally gets it.
It’s almost like we’ve got two speakers in this poem: a young speaker from the past, who takes his pops for granted, and an older speaker from the present, who values his pops.

Stanza 2 – Lines 6-8
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress,
Lines 6-8
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress,

• While the focus of the beginning of the poem was on the speaker’s dad, now we’re paying attention to the speaker himself.
• He doesn’t really ever experience that “blueblack cold” as his father does. He only wakes to find the cold “splintering, breaking.” It’s like the cold is something tangible that he can hold in his hand—something that can break. Of course that’s not literally true, so we should think of this as figurative language.
• And who breaks the cold? Well the speaker doesn’t tell us here, but we know from earlier in the poem that it’s his father who breaks the cold by lighting fires in all of the fireplaces.
• Then the speaker tells us that he’d get out of bed and get dressed “when the rooms were warm.” Ah, what luxury! The little sleepyhead can wait to get out of bed ’til the whole house is toasty and there’s no need for slippers.
• The speaker also gets to take his time. He gets out of bed and gets dressed (possibly for church) “slowly.” This image seriously contrasts with the one we have of his dad, laboring at the crack of dawn every morning to support his family and keep them warm.

Stanza 2 – Lines 9
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Lines 9
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

• Already we have seen that the speaker has a very different Sunday experience than his father does, but these lines really start to bring this idea home.
• In this line, the poem shifts a bit. This is not a story of ungrateful family members who don’t appreciate their self-sacrificing papa. It’s a bit more complicated than that; there was some anger in the air.
• We can think of these “chronic angers” in two ways. First, we can interpret them as referring to the people in the house (the speaker’s family) being angry.
• The other option is to think of the house itself as being angry. If that’s the case, then Hayden’s giving us a little dose of personification, because he’s saying the house has human feelings. It’s possible that the whole atmosphere is so soaked with anger that the speaker feels it coming through the walls.
• Whatever the case, these angers are chronic. That means they’ve been around a while, and they’re not going away anytime soon.
• And “chronic” is an odd word choice, right? Usually when we hear the word chronic, we think of a sickness, like chronic asthma or chronic fatigue syndrome. But in this case we’re talking about a chronic emotion.
• So that anger has to leave our speaker (and probably his father) feeling pretty rotten. At the very least, our speaker is scared of those angers.
• Hayden isn’t too explicit here, but it sounds like domestic life in the speaker’s home was not all sunshine and rainbows. Perhaps his parents were in an unhappy marriage, or perhaps they struggled financially. The only thing that’s clear is that it was an unhappy household.
• Is this what you would expect from the speaker, given the impressive portrait that he painted of his pops in the beginning of the poem? Probably not. So it’s important to remember here that the speaker is actually recounting a past experience of his childhood—and that the poem is taking place in the present.

Stanza 3 – Lines 10
Speaking indifferently to him,
Lines 10
Speaking indifferently to him,

• Hmm. Maybe the speaker (though he was just a tyke at the time) has something to do with those angers.
• In this line, we learn that he he speaks “indifferently” to his good ol’ dad. We could even say that he’s “cold” to his dad—cold as an icy winter morning. The speaker is acting like the weather to his poor ol’ dad. Not cool.
• But why? Why isn’t he warmer to dear daddy? It probably has something to do with that fear from line 9. Maybe our speaker keeps his distance from his old man because they have a tense, angry relationship—or at least they did.

Stanza 3 – Lines 11-12
who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well.
Lines 11-12
who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well.

• Now, the all-grown-up speaker acknowledges what the young speaker couldn’t. He finally gets that despite the “chronic angers” of his home, his dad had “driven out the cold” and “polished [his] good shoes.” And you know what? That was kind of nice of the guy.
• See, when he was just a little kiddo, our speaker couldn’t appreciate these behaviors as gestures of love. All he could feel was the anger of the household. But now that he’s a grown-up (and who knows—maybe he has kids of his own), he understands that even when family members are emotionally distant, that doesn’t mean there’s not love there.
• We might have an “actions speak louder than words” sort of thing going on here. The speaker, as a boy, doesn’t seem to recognize that lighting fires in the fireplaces and polishing the good Sunday church shoes is a kind of love. But the important thing is that the present-day speaker realizes it. He’s finally learned his lesson.

Stanza 3 – Lines 13-14
What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?
Lines 13-14
What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?

• The repetition in line 13—”What did I know, what did I know”—just breaks our little hearts. It’s like the speaker is crying haltingly, or catching his breath in these lines, as he realizes that he knew nothing back then when he was a kid.
• This is the moment the poem has been building toward, this moment of recognition that the adult speaker knows so much more about his father, and his father’s love, than he did as a child.
• The speaker understands a lot more about love now, but is it too late? Can he tell his father that he now knows that lighting fires at the crack of dawn is love in action? We can’t say for sure, but this repetition in line 13, the resigned heartbreak, makes us think that the speaker’s dad isn’t around. The knowledge, it seems to us, has come too late.
• Let’s take a quick vocab tour, shall we? Austere means harsh and severe and disciplined. And the word “office” has more meanings than you might think—an office can be a workplace (duh), but it has other meanings, too. It can mean an official position or post (as in “the office of the president”). It can mean a duty or obligation. It can mean a type of service or worship in the Christian Church.
• So, with all these possible meanings in mind, we see that there are approximately a billion ways to interpret the last line of the poem.
The speaker asks a rhetorical question: when he was a child, what did he understand about love? And, of course, the speaker, just by asking this question, implies that its answer is diddley squat. He was a dumb kid, who didn’t understand his dad’s love.
• But built into the final phrase of the poem—”love’s austere and lonely offices”—is an incredibly complex view of parental love.
What are we getting at? Well, through the word “office,” love is presented as a duty, as a form of worship, as a responsibility, as an official job. It can be all those things at once.
Plus, love is “austere,” or harsh, and as “lonely” as waking at crack of dawn to light the fires for your sleeping family.
• What the grown-up speaker understands now is that love is not all hearts and kisses and pats on the head from dad, but that love is waking up in the blueblack cold and working every day of the week to provide for your family, even if they don’t say thank you.
• And, one final note: we’ve reached the end of the poem, and what do we notice? It’s got fourteen lines.
• Now that might not seem significant, until you remember that sonnets have fourteen lines.
• Hmmm. Okay, so “Those Winter Sundays” is not a traditional sonnet in any way. It has no rhyme scheme, no regular meter, no nada. But, like the most traditional sonnets you can think of, “Those Winter Sundays” is about love. And it does have that turn, or volta at the end—when we realize that this is definitely a guy looking back at his childhood and regretting that he didn’t see how much his dear old dad loved him.
• With its sonnet-ness in mind, we feel pretty comfortable saying that, in the end, “Those Winter Sundays” is a belated child-to-father love poem that acknowledges the complexity of this relationship.

Form and Meter
Funky Sonnet

“Those Winter Sundays” fills the most basic qualification for a sonnet: it has fourteen lines. Other than that, it’s not very sonnet-ish. The poem doesn’t rhyme and it’s not written in regular iambic pentameter.

We mean, sure, the poem begins with two ten-syllable lines: [syllable]

[Sun]days [too] my [fa]ther got up [ea]rly
and [put] his [clothes] on [in] the [blue]black [cold],

but if you scan them (as we’ve done above), you realize that the first line has no metrical pattern, while the second line is in perfect iambic pentameter. And then if you keep reading, you discover that the third line isn’t even close to being ten syllables long and the rhythm is more than a little wonky:

[then] with [cracked hands] that [ached]

This line follows no metrical pattern whatsoever. It keeps changing its M.O. in every line.

At this point, we’re ready to wave goodbye to the land of regular meter. If you gave “Those Winter Sundays” to your pal Shakespeare (sonnet writer-extraordinaire), he might not recognize it as a sonnet at all. That’s how un-sonnet-y this sonnet is.

And yet. And yet! “Those Winter Sundays” is a poem about love. And what are traditional sonnets about? Did someone say love? Yup, that’s right: sonnets are usually about good ol’ ooey gooey, hearts and flowers L-O-V-E love.

Even though Hayden’s poem isn’t about romantic love (as so many sonnets are) it is about deep and abiding love—the love that a father has for his children, and the love that children have for their parents. “Those Winter Sundays” isn’t filled with hugs and kisses, but that doesn’t make it any less a love poem.

We also think that the secret sonnet-ness of the poem’s form connects up with its content. Just as the speaker doesn’t understand the nature of his father’s love until he’s grown, we don’t understand the poem’s form to be a sonnet until we finish it (and realize in retrospect that it has fourteen lines). So there’s a delayed, or belated, recognition of love (and its many forms) for both the speaker and for us, the readers.

Neat, isn’t it? Robert Hayden really knew what he was doing.

Our speaker in “Those Winter Sundays” is an adult who looks back on his childhood relationship with his father. In some ways, it’s almost like our speaker is split in two; he’s both the child who fears his father and the adult who looks back upon his pops with love, respect, and understanding. It’s clear that the speaker has matured a lot since his childhood, and he can now recognize his father’s labor in and outside of the home as a form of love.

These basic facts aside, we don’t know much about the speaker—we don’t even know if the speaker is male or female (though we’ve been referring to the speaker as “him” throughout just to make it easier on everyone). We don’t know if the speaker has brown hair or blonde hair. We don’t know if the speaker is short or tall. We don’t know if the speaker likes baseball cards or ballet dancing or painting or bug-collecting.

And our lack of knowledge about the speaker is part of what makes the poem speak to so many people—we can all envision ourselves in the speaker’s position, as a child who doesn’t understand his/her parents. So many people respond so strongly to this poem because they see themselves in it, which might be a little harder to do if we knew that the speaker only wore hot pink leggings, or that the speaker’s face was covered in freckles.

The speaker of “Those Winter Sundays” speaks to us from the present, but tells us about his childhood, which was cold. Cold, cold, cold. Based on the speaker’s description, we imagine him and his family living in a big, drafty, ramshackle-y old house, with lots of fireplaces. The air is cold, his relationship with his father is cold, and we can almost see the frost forming on the windowsills of his childhood.

Sound Check
Even though “Those Winter Sundays” doesn’t rhyme or have a regular meter, it is still a really sound-y poem. (That’s really just our way of saying that it sounds cool.)

There’s a whole bunch of alliteration, assonance, and consonance—all different kinds of repeated sounds in the poem.

In phrases like “blueblack” and “banked fires blaze,” the poem alliterates (or repeats the beginning sounds of words) on a lot of harsh sounds, particularly on the letter B. When you read the poem out loud (or listen to Hayden reading it), the beginning of the poem sounds super severe. You can almost feel yourself out there in the cold with the speaker’s father.

There’s also another kind of repetition in the poem—the repetition of an entire phrase. Line 13 is just a repetition of the same phrase twice: “What did I know, what did I know.” Heartbreaking, don’t you think?

See, early on in the poem, we were out there in the harsh cold with the speaker’s father; now, we’re listening to the speaker sobbing out his words, as if he’s stumbling over his feelings, trying to catch his breath as he explains what he’s learned. Hayden makes so much meaning out of this one little repetition—it’s really the hinge of the poem’s emotions.

Theme – Love
At its heart, “Those Winter Sundays” is about love. No, not the ooey-gooey thing between young lovers like Romeo and Juliet, but the deep and serious familial love between a parent and a child. The type of love that gets you up at the crack of dawn, even when you’re exhausted from a long week of hard work. This love is quiet and brave; it’s not showy, there are no hugs and kisses and snuggles. That means, unfortunately, that it can easily slip by unnoticed.

Theme – Sacriface
We only ever see the speaker’s father through the speaker’s point of view, but it’s not too hard to imagine what the old man’s life is like. “Those Winter Sundays” tells us that he wakes up early, works hard, and provides for his family. Seriously, he works (in and outside of the home) seven days a week for his family. If that isn’t sacrifice, well, we don’t know what sacrifice is. This dude could use an all-expenses-paid week in Tahiti, if you ask us.

Theme – Youth
Remember the good old days when you were young? When someone lit the fires in your home so you didn’t have to? When someone polished your shoes? When someone paid the bills and cared for you? The speaker in “Those Winter Sundays” is remembering those good old days, though they didn’t seem so good at the time. But that’s only because he was young and ignorant. Once he’s grown up a bit, and has a few years behind him, he’s able to recognize his father’s love.

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Those Winter Sundays - Robert Hayden. (2018, Jan 22). Retrieved from

Those Winter Sundays - Robert Hayden
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