“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.