Summary of Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden

About the Poet – Robert Hayden, born in 1913asAsa Bundy Sheffey, was an American poet, essayist and educator who served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1976–78, a role today known as US Poet Laureate.  He was the first African-American writer to hold the office. Hayden studied poetry at the University of Michigan, and went on to teaching at both Michigan University and Fisk University. Hayden was also one of the most celebrated African-American poets of his day, producing enduring works, including “The Middle Passage” and “Those Winter Sundays.” He died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on February 25, 1980. Over his years of teaching, Hayden continued to write and publish poetry, becoming one of the nation’s foremost African-American poets.  Hayden used black vernacular phrasing, building on the knowledge he had grown from the Federal Writers’ Project and from his own skill.

About the Poem

“Those Winter Sundays” is a short lyric in which the speaker reminisces a moment in his childhood and thinks about the detriments his father made for him then. This split or double perception of the poem arranges for its power, for the poem’s meaning depends upon the differences between what the boy knew then and what the man—a father himself, perhaps—knows now.

The poem begins curtly. The poet, in fact, assumes actions that have gone before—that the father got up early on other days as well as Sundays to help his family. While going through the poem, the reader learns about the father rising in the cold to heat the house before the rest of his family gets up. The last line of the stanza contains the first hint of one of the poem’s vitalmelodies: “No one ever thanked him.”


Annotations-Stanzawise

In the first stanza, the speaker sees his father in his memory and recalls this precise Sunday morning. The word too entails that the father gets up early every day. He dresses in the biting cold.  His hands are split open from the weather and hard work that he does every day.  The father lights the stoves and fireplaces to warm the rooms for his family.  The most important statement in this stanza comes from the speaker. It is a present admiration for his father.  No one thanked his father for getting up and making the house warm. The speaker regrets for the lack of gratitude expressed to his parent.

In the second stanza, when the speaker woke up, he hears the house reacting to the warmth from the fires. His father calls out to the child.  Slowly, the child would dress dreading the “chronic angers of that house.” This phrase reflects the tenor of the poem.  Initially, the poem seems to be only about the speaker remembering that no one said anything to the father about his warming up the house. Now something new enters the scene.  The house holds strong, angry feelings.  The poet gives no more information, but the words that he chooses help the reader to understand the meanings.

The word chronic means long-lasting, continuing, enduring, and persistent.  This anger has been an on-going problem in the house.  Instead of saying the home or this house, he uses is “that house.” This phrase also emphasizes that the child and the present speaker divorce themselves from the house that holds all of this wrath, rage, or resentment. The child does not just dread the habitual rage, but rather fears it indicating that there may be violence involved or screaming.  The poet leaves it the imagination.

In the third stanza, the child shows no emotion toward his father when he speaks to him.  The man warms the house and even polishes his shoes for him.  The parent obviously loves the child.  Again the poet’s word choice suggests that the narrator regrets that he did not understand the sombre but solitary job of a parent.  The speaker apparently now understands what a small “Thank You” might have meant to his father.  The poem has an “If only…” tone; however, the anger in the house may have prevented the child from relating in a positive way to his father.

Setting of the Poem, Mood

Robert Hayden’s tribute to his father demonstrates the effectiveness of understatement, brevity and artful imagery. Blended with respectful memories of the father figure is his realization of the ingratitude that commonly accompanies youth. He is ashamed of having taken for granted the self-sacrificing duties routinely performed morning after morning by his hard-working and reticent parent.

The adjective “austere” describes not only the tasks performed but also the man performing them. The elder Hayden was a severe, stern person not given to demonstrations of familial affection. None of that is elaborated in the poem but is conveyed in the “chronic angers” of a household where fear was a constant and expressions of grateful recognition were absent.

The poet’s shame and remorse are distressing in his concluding rhetorical questions. The first “What did I know” suggests a generalized lack of knowledge and understanding of the self-sacrifice of others – a deficiency made understandable though not excusable by the speaker’s youth and inexperience. Then “what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices” conveys mature realization of duties one performs willingly and in isolation for loved ones. The selection of “offices” as the poem’s final word is brilliant in its denotative and connotative expression of functions dutifully performed without expectation of appreciation or thanks

Summary of Those Winter Sundays

In the first stanza,the speaker sees his father in his recollection and recalls this actual Sunday morning. The word too indicates that the father gets up timely every day. He dresses in the freezing cold.  His hands are broken open from the weather and hard work that he does every single day.  The father beams the cooktops and firesides to warm the rooms for his family.

The most imperative statement in this stanza comes from the speaker. It is a present admiration for his father.  No one acknowledged his father for getting up and making the house warm. The speaker feels regret, for the lack of gratitude articulated to his parent.

In the second stanza, when the speaker woke up, he hears the house reacting to the warmth from the fires. His father calls out to the child.  Slowly, the child would dress dreading the “chronic angers of that house.” This phrase reflects the tone of the poem.  Initially, the poem seems to be only about the speaker recalling that no one said anything to the father about his warming up the house.

Now something new enters the scene.  The house holds strong, angry feelings.  The poet gives no more information, but the words that he chooses help the reader to understand the meanings.

The word chronic means long-lasting, continuing, enduring, and persistent.  This anger has been an on-going problem in the house.  Instead of saying the home or this house, he uses is “that house.” This phrase also emphasizes that the child and the present speaker divorce themselves from the house that holds all of this wrath, rage, or resentment.

The child does not just dread the habitual rage, but rather fears it indicating that there may be violence involved or screaming.  The poet leaves it the imagination.

In the third stanza, the child shows no emotion toward his father when he speaks to him.  The man warms the house and even polishes his shoes for him.  The parent obviously loves the child.

The speaker of the present almost cries out:

“What did I know, what did I know

Of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Another important phrase comes from the last line of the poem.

Again the poet’s word choice suggests that the narrator regrets that he did not understand the sombre but introverted job of a parent.  The poet apparently now understands what a small “Thank You” might have meant to his father.  The poem has an “If only…” tone; however, the anger in the house may have prohibited the child from relating in a positive way to his father.