“Those Winter Sundays” Analysis
Though he is best known for his detailed poems about the African American life, Robert E. Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” is a short lyric poem that grasps a personal story of the relationship between a father and son. Hayden’s intricate language of the poem brings a great use of imagery, alliteration, and other forms of figurative language to each line. The sonnet does not follow a strict rhyme scheme, yet the pattern of the words used brings a sense of euphony to the reader. This poem is about a son looking back on his earlier years to his tough relationship with his father. The son, who at the time could not perceive his father’s subtle expressions of love, never returned them. Therefore, guilt and love are the central themes of the poem.
The first stanza starts off with a simple line that denotes the tone that the poem will pursue. The notion of “early morning” adds to the silent coldness of the title’s “Winter Sundays”. The author’s choice of incorporating “Sunday” into the poem initiates a more religious perspective as well. Sundays are religiously known to be a holy day of leisure, so therefore, the fact that his father got up on Sundays too shows the devotion he put forth into tending for his family. The image of him getting up in the darkness of the cold to the start the day’s work is sharpened by the word “blueblack” (line 2). Hayden supplements this uncommon word to create dissonance and negative connotation in which makes the harsh coldness of the line more visible to the reader. It is made apparent in line 3 that the father’s dedication to get up every morning has led him to suffer and endure pain through his work by the use of the words “cracked hands” and “ached”. This auditory image and sensory term adds a pensive tone that correlates to the perseverance to work through such harsh mornings. A consistent use of consonance and alliteration is displayed through different words in this first stanza. The sound of a hard “c” is portrayed in close proximities, adding a subtle and sensory element of pain in words such as blueblack, cracked, ached, weekday, banked, and thanked. Alliteration comes to play a role as well in phrases such as “banked fires blaze” and “weekday weather”. Hayden ends the first stanza with the sudden sentence: “No one ever thanked him” (line 5). This culminates a regretful tone that represents the son’s recollection of his father’s struggles and his shame that no one ever acknowledged him.
The second stanza focuses more on the Sunday morning experience for the speaker. The phrase “cold splintering, breaking”, keeps consistent with the connotation and sound of the warmth breaking through created by the fire. This could metaphorically evoke the progression of dark and cold to luminous and warm throughout the poem. After describing the splintering of the cold, the father would call to the son “when the rooms were warm” (line 7). Hayden establishes a connection in which equates warmth with his father’s hard work. It could be argued that this may be a parallel between the father and son, denoting that the speaker has possibly come to realization of his father’s tough past by finding himself in the same shoes in the present. Furthermore, Hayden incorporates allusion and personification into the next powerful line through the phrase; “fearing the chronic angers” (line 10). Though the reader is unsure of the source of the anger taking place in the household, it is made clear that there may have been a dysfunctional familial interaction present. The etymology of the word chronic is connected to the Greek mythology of Chronos and Zeus, where Zeus was the son of Chronos and wanted to dethrone him due to previous actions. This adds a complex and psychological element to the poem as well.
The third and final stanza starts off with a very regretful tone that brings forth an image of emotional distance. It is not implied whether the father was the source of the “chronic angers” in the house as stated previously, yet as a guardian, he tended to his child no matter what. Hayden further sets a tone of admiration towards the dad when he refers to him as the man “who had driven out the cold” (line 11), as if he acted superhero-like. Line 12 gives a sharper and austere image of the father polishing shoes. Lines 11 and 12 both offer images that display connotations of him acting servant-like. After the speaker’s flashbacks to his relationship with his father, he imposes a rhetorical question, with an almost sad and shameful repetition, that evokes he was ignorant towards his father. He realizes that though there was a lack of communication between the two, love was still present in subtle indications through his father’s efforts and quiet care. The stanza ends with a line decorated with personification; “of love’s austere and lonely offices” (line 14). The adjective “austere”, meaning unadorned, correlates with the neglect towards the father who faces the monstrous cold every morning only to foster the comfort of his family. The supplement of the word “lonely” also adds to the sadness of the tone and seclusion that he endured every day.
Robert E. Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” reveals not only ungratefulness, but an important theme that love can be displayed in more than one way. It is apparent that the speaker, as a child, expected love to be expressed in more obvious ways. Yet in remembrance, when he is older and wiser, he realizes that love is often expressed in indirect and more abstruse ways. This enables him to finally acknowledge the acts of his father. Though he never got to thank his father, the sonnet ends with a feeling of internal resolution, as if reverence is finally being paid in the making of the poem.