#8 “Those Winter Sundays” (Robert Hayden)

“Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden is a miniature classic of tremendous power. Like so many other poems on the Countdown, it seems (though who knows how it was really composed) to have proceeded from its last two lines, or even from its final line, one of the great iambic pentameters in the English language. Having found, or been “given” that line (poets sometimes speak of a “gift,” their term for their talent in general or a specially beautiful line in particular), Hayden appears to have worked backwards to “earn” the line. What are “love’s austere and lonely offices?”

To work backward from the conclusion, they are things that the speaker didn’t know anything about when he was younger. (He doesn’t say how much younger, but: younger enough to be ignorant, old enough to be ungrateful and embarrassed about it.) “What did I know?” And what were those offices that the speaker knew nothing about?

The poem is devastatingly straightforward; as so often with the best poetry, if there’s a “hidden meaning” here it’s hiding very effectively. The “offices” are domestic. Although the speaker’s father is a breadwinner (“hands that ached / from labor in the weekday weather”), his weekend work is all at home. He makes the house warm, and he shines the speaker’s shoes.

The tensions in the poem are all on the surface; they are things that everyone in the family seems to know about but will not discuss. The home is full of “chronic angers,” and because of the anger, nobody ever thanks the father (or because nobody ever thanks him, he’s chronically angry; it’s a vicious cycle).

But because the surface crackles with tension, the things that the speaker ignores are things that he actually knows about. “What did I know?” – well, he knows and remembers everything. But the ritual of the house makes it impossible to communicate gratitude, or even to communicate resentment. The whole system of this kind of family is one of a smoldering discontent that is, because and despite its tension, the truest evidence of love.

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17 responses to “#8 “Those Winter Sundays” (Robert Hayden)

  1. I can definitely see why this poem makes you emotional. It does the same for me. While it was read aloud in class I didn’t get as emotional as I did when I read the poem the second time, alone. This poem had me thinking back on all the things that were done for me that I should have showed more gratitude for, in particular, all the things my father has done and still does for me.
    I believe the title is a good one for this poem. “Those Winter Sundays” implying that even on Sunday “the day of rest” this father’s work is still not done. The fact that the setting of this poem is in winter adds to the intensity of the poem. It’s always a little rougher on people on the winter because of the cold and also because of the gloominess. It’s pretty obvious that there is some tension in the household, in particular between the father and child. This tension I believe is what, to a child, made it seem like there was no love. However, when the speaker of this poem is no longer a young child he looks back and sees that there really was love. Although, the father may not have ever expressed his love by words he was expressed his love to his child by driving out the cold in the morning before the kid woke, also by shining the child’s shoes for him. I think the biggest love people can give is self-sacrifice and that is clearly what is being done in this poem. The father bears the cold to be the first one up to make the house warm. And also by still doing small things like shining shoes for his kid when I’m sure he is tired from the weeks work already.
    On an online response to his poem I read that even though there is still sadness at the end of the poem there is also a feeling of resolution. I agree with this statement. Perhaps this poem shows the respect and gratitude to the father that is due.

  2. This was indeed a touching poem. It is true about a parent, in this case, a father, sacrificing much for the family. The father gets up very early and makes sure that the house is warm when the rest of the family gets up. He is tired but as a father, he makes sure that he provides in every which way for his family. Not all, but most parents sacrifice so much for their children. I know one movie was mentioned in class, but another television show is Little House on the Prairie. The mother and father sacrificed so much and made every effort to put food on the table and make sure that the children were fed and taken care of. They had hard times but the family came first. Here, the father polishes shoes for the child to as mentioned in class, possibly go to church with clean shoes. I also think that maybe there might have been a woman/mother in the household but for some reason, maybe death, the woman/mother is no longer around. Maybe she died in childbirth and that is why there are “chronic angers of that house.” There might be unresolved feelings there…but they are still family and the father must still sacrifice because that’s what they do. As that child, the boy did not know “of love’s austere and lonely offices.” How could he? As an adult looking back, yes., but as a child, no. Offices, buildings, rooms, places…houses. The father loved the child, clearly, but there was also loneliness, anger, stress and tension. I feel bad for the father because “No one ever thanked him.” I know people who have sacrificed and have never been thanked. I am certainly thinking now to make sure that I have said thank you to those that need to hear it.

  3. “Those Winter Sundays,” is poetry at its best. It is short, simple yet potent and thought provoking. It has the substance of a great epic novel contained in three stanzas. When I finished reading the poem, I felt like I had been on an emotional journey. I laughed at the use of “blueblack” in the poem. That’s black vernacular I remember from my childhood when African Americans use to refer to something that was very black as “blueblack.” Also, I absolutely love the technique of working backwards from a great line. One of my favorite children’s author, Chris Van Allsburg, wrote “The Wreck of the Zephyr” using that same technique. Whenever an author or poet begins with the end in mind, the writing promises to be a masterpiece. As I read this poem alone at home, tears streamed down my face as Hayden’s language pierced to the deepest innermost parts of my heart. It reminded me of the darkest nights of my soul when I became a widow at a young age. My husband died suddenly and unexpectedly. I was left alone with the responsibility of providing for and rearing three small children. Our home turned from being a warm loving place to a cold place full of “chronic” fear and anxiety. I did my best everyday to drive out the cold with little or no thanks from anyone. The children were much too young to appreciate the price I was paying. On Sundays, I would rise early and prepare the children’s clothes for church, and I worked from sun up to sun down trying to keep everything from falling apart. My silence grew deeper and deeper as I tried to preserve the little strength that remained hoping one day that the sun would come out again before I collapsed from mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. The children never lacked anything as I suffered silently “love’s austere and lonely offices” in self sacrificing love. The children always asked, “Mom, are you alright?” I responded, “I’m fine. Now, let’s get started on that homework.” Well, the sun did come out again. Last year, my youngest child graduated from the University of Texas in Austin. On the night of her graduation, she toasted me and said, “Mom, you are the greatest. Your strength should be considered right up there with the seven wonders of the world because you are truly amazing!” Everyone stood and clapped. I smiled. It took ten years before the children matured enough to realize and appreciate the sacrifices that I made to “drive out the cold.”

  4. The poem is about the relationship between the speaker and his father. They seemed to have a bad relationship; one in which love is not expressed. I got the feeling that the speaker didn’t like his father; and didn’t appreciate him as well which explains the statement, “No one ever thanked him.” I feel like maybe the father felt that no one (it could be his son or even his co-workers) appreciated him for the things he did; and so he became bitter and angry towards them. Maybe the father was angry all the time because it was his way of retaliating to those who didn’t appreciate him–including his son. Also, a point that was brought up in class that I agree with is that the mother in this scenario could’ve died and the father’s left with the children; working maybe more than one job; and so he maybe angry that his wife left him as well as the kids. The part where the speaker says, “fearing the chronic anger of that house”, I feel like the house if the speaker is one where there’s no love; where there’s always conflicts. I know that most kids don’t want to be in a house where there’s constant fighting and no love; this is also what could’ve contributed to the separation of the speaker and his dad. Another thing that was brought up in class was the use of the word “house” which sounds empty as opposed to “home” which sounds more warm and loving. However, even though it seems like the speaker’s not close to his father, I do feel like he wants to make it up to his father and start over. I say this because I think that the speaker was young–a kid–when he had problems with his dad; the part where he says, “what did I know, what did I know”, gives me a hint that the speaker’s reflecting on the past and wants to patch things up with his father.

  5. I love reading this poem because it expresses so much with so little words. This poem did make me a little emotional because it expresses the unconditional love a parent has for their child. I can remember growing up and my parents making sacrifices so that my siblings and I could have. There were many times that my parents went without so that my siblings and I could have more. When I was younger I did not realize those things. Now that I am older I let my parents know that I appreciate the sacrifices that made for me growing up. In this poem the father put his family first and did for his family before anything else. Even though it was Sunday, and that is his rest day, he still got up and made sure his family was taken care of. As said in class this poem does indeed remind me of the movie, The Pursuit of Happyness. This poem expresses so much love is one of my favorite poems on the countdown.

  6. Those Winter Sundays

    The first stanza symbolizes sacrifice without thanks and it is inspiring the movement of life despite the ambition of work. People want success from a business’ standpoint, but there is always someone needed to complete a task. The writer emphasizes the disposition of work by describing the weather as blue cold. Anyone who has worked in the cold knows that the work can be harsh. In this instance, it’s not worth quitting according to the speaker’s father. He worked despite having cracked hands and being ached with labor.
    Hayden also added that nobody ever thanked the father for his endeavors. Work without thanks could lead to the anger suggested in the second stanza. We don’t know whether the speaker is poor so we can’t justify the assumption of poverty being the cause of this anger. Anger was the fear in the household. The speaker never knew when the anger would arise. These events led to the thankfulness according to the speaker in the third stanza. Whenever you begin to question someone’s love for the best, then the love was well worth the time spent. Even though there were flaws in this household, somehow they managed to keep it together. Somehow, the father managed to raise a son who eventually appreciated him.

  7. I can see why this is number eight out of top sixty-four poems on our countdown. The mood that the poem carries with it is tremendously powerful. After reading the poem I felt sorry for the father figure in it because it describes him as a very noble person and yet nobody thanks him for his nobility. Even on Sundays he woke up early with hands that ached from all the hard work he did throughout the week and made sure the house was warm in those cold winter days. The love a parent feels for his/her children is definitely one of the greatest forms of love that can be felt. Whenever a person is willing to sacrifice their comfort for any other person, they are proving how much they truly care. I think it is very touching that the speaker of the poem realizes that he has never thanked his father for making him comfortable although he is worn out. The speaker feels remorse and wishes that he could love in the same manner as his father does; so he questions himself about what he really knows about love! It could be that the speaker envisions himself being a father one day and wishes that his sacrifice made for his children would at least be appreciated by those who are closest to him.

  8. andreamcginley

    The poem “Those Sunday Mornings” is identical to the classic moody teenager and their parent. I know when I was a teenager I gave my parents hell about everything. Almost every decision of theirs was unfair and uncool. Especially those about curfew. Though not that much older I now realize that everything they did was out of their love and concern for my well being. Though my parents and I fought what seemed like constantly I still love them like no other, and am now extremely grateful for everything that they have ever done, I feel like they have raised me proper. The first stanza appears to be that the father was never thanked at work and treated like a worker bee. It was his place to do work and it was never a good job or thank you but if something were to wrong it would have been a world of hurt. I love the way the poem is set up, though short it leads in the third and last stanza that just like at work there was no thank you at home either. The father works so hard to provide ‘good shoes’ for his child and his child at a young age did not see the sacrifices that he had made. This poem relates similarly to that of a “Song in the Backyard” where in the little girl of the poem does not understand why her mother won’t let her go out back and play with the other kids. The tension in both of the poems relate to the child/parent not seeing eye to eye. All around I feel like this poem should be read by all teenage children so that maybe some kids can grow up a little because I know some people in their twenties who still act twelve with their thought processes.

  9. This poem is very touching. I think we can all put ourselves in the speaker’s position. There has been a time when we know we should show more gratitude for the things that are done for us, and we feel guilty if or when we don’t. As I get older I realize all the things my mother has done for me and many things I need to thank her for but sometimes because of the routine of things, and how comfortable we become it becomes harder to say a simple, “thank you.” But I think there is a difference between a mother and a father. I know my brothers have a different relationship with my mother than they do my father. They are quick to tell my mother thank you because she is more open, but my father has a hard exterior so they hesitate to tell him thank you. I feel that maybe the speaker in the poem felt that way with his own father. Maybe his father wasn’t welcoming enough to accept a thank you or really didn’t want to hear one, and that is where the “angers of the house” came from. This is a poem that has many possibilities and I like poems like this because everyone can have a different meaning to it and more people will be able to relate.

  10. This poem was short and sweet, well more like moving. In such few words, the poem moves nearly anyone. Personally it made me wonder more into the depth of it and think about my home and my parents and how much they do and sacrifice for me.
    This poem describes a very hard working father that works hard for him and his son, and family and keeps working without being thanked.
    Even though I felt this way while reading the poem I sort of got the feeling that the speaker even though greatful to his father may have been distant, for example his use of “house” in the second stanza, to me is cold and empty, the relationships in the house make it a home and mayb their bonds weren’t as tight or maybe it was just the speaker that somehow felt distant. The speaker now realizes when it may be too late that he should have been more expressive to his father.

  11. Robert Hayden created a short yet obvious picture of how much work is put into a life that most children take for granted as they grow up. Things such as warming the house on a winter’s day may seem as something common to a person who doesn’t have to worry about how the house is getting warm. They just have the pleasure of enjoying that warmth without actually paying for it or having to experience “cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday”. The most sobering thing about life is that depending on how regular these necessities were consumed as a child, there is a total opposite reaction as to how those necessities are valued when those children become adults and have to fend for themselves. For example, I used to ask for money all the time and I couldn’t figure out why they would have a problem with that. Now that I have to pay bills, I can see that sometimes we don’t have money to go shopping and the bills must come first. This poem is a nice little message acknowledging the hard work and the gratitude that Mr. Hayden has for what his father did to provide the best life he could for his child.

  12. To date, not too many of the poems have stirred my soul like this one did. From the very first time it was read to the last time I read it 10 minutes ago, this poem has everything that I feel a poem should have. It has tremendous feeling and intrigue and brings you in like none we’ve read before. I can easily see why it is number 8. The poem seems to me to be about a father and son that are the only ones that reside in an old house that requires manual heat. Maybe an old pot bellied stove is used. On this particular Sunday, they are doing what they normally do. Preparing for church. It just so happens that this time of the year, it’s cold.
    I guess that the reason for my liking this poem so much is because of what I have experienced in my life and the similarities that I share with the person in the poem. I can relate to the “blueblack cold” and how it required an early riser to heat the house. I can all but see my grandfathers hands and the years of manual labor that turned them into the course strong hands they were. I can imagine that although the young man in the poem seems a little fearful of the father, I can also feel the love that he has for him and the pain that he felt for not expressing that love more often. It’s obvious that the father had as much love for the son and did all that he could to take care of the child. Warming the house and polishing his shoes are but a few things that he did and the only things mentioned in this poem.
    Surely the father demanded much from the son also because the child spoke to him differently than he would any other. Maybe a “Yes Sir” was required during conversations with the father. The fear that is spoken in the poem is not the kind that makes one shake at the site of the thing that he fears, but one of reverence.
    Finally, What did he know? What did he know of love’s austere and lonely offices? He knew that because of the fathers many years of hard work and the things that he did to keep the son safe, warm and fed he should be thankful. The fact that it’s Sunday and they are doing the one thing that took them away from the old house (if only for a while) makes those times memorable and reminds the young man that there are a lot of things to be thankful for and his father is one of them.

  13. “Those Winter Sundays” is a truthful poem, emotional but truthful. I speak of the truth because there are a lot of people that experience this type of lifestyle everyday. Such as single parents and widows that needs strength and maybe help to better the situation or just for someone to acknowledge there hard work. His father gets up early everyday including Sunday regardless of the pain he felt or the thanks he never received. In the first stanza it appears to be a sad situation to get up early in the cold with pain and their no one to recognize your strength your tenacity to move forward. I picture a fire place for his father to warm the house as he slowly rises not knowing want mood has been set by his father. The house has a holds an empty but angry feeling because of the atmosphere that has been set by his father “fearing the chronic angers of the house”. It appears to be a lot of deadly built up emotions that are felt through out the house. This poem just might be his way of telling his father thank you. He now understands as an adult the austere love given by his father because as stated ‘”what did I know, what did I know”. As a boy he only knew his father cared pain as he worked hard, warmed the house and polished his shoe. Now as a man he can now say “thank you”.

  14. The great thing about this poem, as many of those in the countdown, is that it is completely timeless. At some point in most everyone’s life, they will live, they will die, gain and lose a loved one, and experience aging. This poem is one of the more memorable to deal with the latter. All too much we can understand the under appreciation of another human being, whether it be a parent, guardian, sibling, relative, teacher, world leader, or just a stranger, many people go through life without realizing everything it must have taken to get them to the point in life in which they are living. We see this on all levels, from soldiers who fight for their country, to the homes like the one in “Those Winter Sundays.” After coming to college, it is also a lot easier for to relate to what my parents had to go through to give me life I have. Like most children, I, and the boy in this poem, had a hard time grasping all of the difficulties aging and responsibility bring. In reference to the anger of the house, adolescents are much more simple-minded than most adults, which is why they cannot understand the anger brought on by minor incidences like shining shoes and starting a fire. Now that the speaker is older, I feel he “too” does this for his children and is now looking back and really appreciating what his father did for him, though all too late.

  15. Although this poem was very short, it was very visual. I could picture a hard working father waking his sleeping child. It is evident that the child had high expectations of his child however, the father expected nothing in return of his child and his child never gave him a reason too. The child knew how hard their father worked but like most human beings, it his human nature to take for granted the ones that mean the most to you. Now it is evident that the child is now grown and is reminiscing on how hard his or her father worked but still took the time out to make sure they were taken care of. Sadly it seems as if it was not until after the father’s death that the child now adult really began to appreciate him.

  16. decarlocoleman

    In the poem, “Those Winter Sundays”, Robert Hayden recollects memories from his childhood, over which he reveals some of his emotions through detailed and powerful imagery. In doing so he creates a contrast with touch and auditory imagery related to cold and harshness, which establish a regretful tone, and warm images indicative of respect and appreciation toward his father. Hayden appears to be upset at himself and his family for not being more appreciative of his father and all the sacrifices his father made for them. This is something that we all may overlook and take for granted in life. He took no thought for his own comfort, except maybe when he got angry. As he grew up, Hayden realized that his father was totally self-sacrificing. To show the importance of the father, he had the power to put an end to the cold, and to drive it out for the sake of those to which he cared for. This also meant that even the father’s harshness toward his son was done out of love for him. The repetition of “What did I know” adds emphasis to this thought, like Hayden is full of regret, wishing he had known, and had thanked his father. Knowledge is always something we realize that we lack in certain past situations, but it is better to recognize and learn from the mistakes we make in order to teach and grow within ourselves. With the presence of anger in the home, Hayden implies that as much as his indifference to his father may have been self-protective, it was also ungrateful.

  17. In “Those Winter Sundays” Robert Hayden describes a situation that many have experienced in some form or another. Hayden speaks as if he is reflecting on his childhood, “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” It seems as if he realizes that his father’s way of expressing love for him was through hard work and he is reasoning with himself to justify the way he responded to that love. It’s as if he accepts his actions because he was too young to understand. How could he understand his father’s love if it was masked by anger to the point he feared his father? This helps him to feel justified but not free of the guilt. Family members can sometimes be brutally honest with one another and at other times tip toe around an issue that everyone is aware of but simply too afraid to confront. Families seem to know when confronting certain issues could be more disastrous than helpful. So they simply look past them and hope that time will “warm the room” again someday.

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