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Those Winter Sundays

Have you ever looked back on an experience and gained a new understanding of it? Sometimes, with time and distance, we can look back on our lives and realize things we didnt see at the time. This idea forms the basis for Robert Haydens poem Those Winter Sundays (1962)—a poem that discovers a fathers love only in retrospect.

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Those Winter Sundays

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Have you ever looked back on an experience and gained a new understanding of it? Sometimes, with time and distance, we can look back on our lives and realize things we didnt see at the time. This idea forms the basis for Robert Haydens poem Those Winter Sundays (1962)—a poem that discovers a fathers love only in retrospect.

Those Winter Sundays: Quick facts

TitleThose Winter Sundays
PoetRobert Hayden
Publication titleA Ballad of Remembrance
Year 1962
FormNo set form
Structure3 stanzas, 14 lines in total
MeterNo meter
RhymeNo rhyme
ThemesFather/child relationship, maturity, memory
ToneAppreciative, nostalgic
Imagery Cold and warmth
Poetic devices Contrast, varying sentence structure
MeaningThe speaker recalls their fathers acts of love which went unnoticed as a child.

Context and background of Those Winter Sundays

Robert Hayden (19131980) had a tumultuous childhood. Living with foster parents in a disadvantaged neighborhood, he was exposed to many episodes of physical and verbal violence. He wrote Those Winter Sundays while teaching English at Fisk University, and many believe the poem is based on his childhood experiences. Those Winter Sundays would become one of the most frequently anthologized poems for high school and college students.

Robert Hayden broke many barriers for African American poets. During his teaching fellowship, he was the first Black faculty member in the University of Michigans Department of English, and in 1976, he was the first Black poet appointed to the Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress (a position which is now called United States Poet Laureate). His study of American and African American history, as well as his own experience as a Black man, compelled him to write poems from various historical perspectives, such as those of Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Nat Turner.

Summary of Those Winter Sundays

The speaker opens the poem by reminiscing about early Sunday mornings from their childhood. Speaking from a matured perspective, the speaker recalls how their father would wake up before everyone else and, “in the blueblack cold” (line 2), begin to warm the house by making a fire. The speaker details the father’s hands here, which are rough and aching from his manual labor during the week. The speaker then remarks bluntly that “no one ever thanked him” (line 5).

Those Winter Sundays, Fire in fireplace, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The speaker remembers his father lighting a fire to warm the home every Sunday.

The speaker continues to remember how they would wake up quietly and slowly, fearing they might disturb the house or their father. There is a sense of uneasiness here, as the speaker recalls “the chronic angers of the house” (line 9). This, along with the imagery in the first two stanzas, suggests the house was tense, harsh, and cold—the speaker felt uncomfortable and distant, especially from the father.

However, now that the speaker has aged and is looking back on their childhood, they no longer feel this way. Instead, the speaker asks a rhetorical question at the end: “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” (lines 13-14). A question that really is a statement: I did not realize my father’s tender acts of love.”

Those Winter Sundays

LineThose Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden
1Sundays too my father got up early
2
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
3
then with cracked hands that ached
4
from labor in the weekday weather made
5
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
6
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
7
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
8
and slowly I would rise and dress,
9
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
10
Speaking indifferently to him,
11
who had driven out the cold
12
and polished my good shoes as well.
13
What did I know, what did I know
14
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Analysis of Those Winter Sundays

As you read through the analysis, pay close attention to the poems title when interpreting it. A poems title often provides context and points to the meaning of the poem. In this case, Those Winter Sundays implies a memory of the past. Use this nugget of information to guide your reading and analysis of the poem.

Contrast

There are two contrasting ideas present in the poem: cold and warmth. Words and phrases such as “blueblack cold” (line 2) and “hear the cold splintering, breaking” (line 6) suggest the overall feeling of the house. Conditions were harsh and icy, presumably leaving the speaker feeling unsettled at home. Yet the father wakes early to make the house warm. His hands “made … fires blaze” (lines 4-5), and he had “driven out the cold” (line 11). This contrast highlights the appreciation the speaker now has for their father. When looking back on this time in their life, the speaker remembers the cold and uncomfortable feeling, yet they feel a sense of warmth and appreciation when the speaker reflects on it now.

Those Winter Sundays, Log cabin in snow, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The cold setting of the wintertime reflects how the speaker viewed his family life as a child.

Sentence structure

The entire poem, which is fourteen lines long, contains only four sentences. Hayden uses a mix of long, complex sentences with inverted syntax and straightforward, simple ones. Doing so allows him to emphasize the winding nature of the speaker’s memory and the stark realization of present-day appreciation. For example, in the first stanza, the first complete sentence reads, “Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze” (lines 1 - 5). The length and complexity of this sentence imply the comparable complexity of memory. It is a bit foggy and not easy to understand.

Yet, the next sentence, “No one ever thanked him” (line 5), is only five words long. This cuts through the messiness of the early childhood memory and brings clarity, just as the speaker is now having clarity about their father’s love. This kind of stark, matter-of-fact statement is also a clue to the reader about one of the poem’s major themes: appreciation of what once went unnoticed.

Tone

Tone: this accentuates the speakers attitude(s) toward their subject.

The speaker’s tone in Those Winter Sundays is mature, appreciative, and nostalgic. Despite the negative things the speaker mentions about their childhood, such as the “chronic angers” of the house (line 9) and the emotional distance between the speaker and the father, the overall feeling is one of gratitude. This is most apparent in the final two lines, which read: “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” (lines 13 - 14). The repetition of “what did I know” demonstrates how the speaker did not realize all that the father had done for the family. The speaker also acknowledges how the father’s love is “austere” (line 14), meaning it lacks in adornment and is strict in manner. The fathers love is also lonely, without a proper witness.

The themes of Those Winter Sundays

Within the mere fourteen lines of Those Winter Sundays, multiple themes are found, including maturity and memory, the father and child relationship, and unnoticed acts of love.

Maturity and memory

Implied in the poem is the effect of aging on one’s memory. Although we don’t know the age of the speaker, we can safely assume that the speaker is grown up and no longer that child from those winter Sundays. Gaining distance and life experience helps one to see the past more clearly. Although the speaker recalls feeling fear upon waking and trying to minimize interaction with the father, they ultimately realize that the father exhibited acts of love by warming the house and polishing the speaker’s shoes (line 12). Without the time separation between the experience and the re-telling of it, the speaker may not have had these insights.

The father and child relationship

The poem also explores the relationship between father and child. Much is unspoken between to two. The father wakes before everyone else to prepare the house, and no one ever thanks him for this. As an adult, the speaker is attempting to reconcile this unspoken thankfulness by asking the rhetorical question, “What did I know… of love’s austere and lonely offices?” (13-14). The speaker uses that question to reflect on all that the father did do for the family instead of focusing solely on the harsh conditions at home.

Those Winter Sundays, Adult hand holding child's hand, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The speaker reconsiders his childhood relationship with his father through a new lens as an adult.

Unnoticed acts of love

This poem, ultimately, is about not appreciating what we have at the moment. It’s only upon reflecting—and having a wider perspective—that we can really understand the full picture of something. The speaker thinks back to a specific period: the winter Sunday mornings of their childhood. Through recalling the father’s charitable acts, the speaker gains an enlarged understanding of the father’s love.

Some readers interpret the final lines as an expression of guilt: the speaker is remorseful over not being aware of their fathers tenderness. Others interpret the final lines as reassurance that the speaker, as a child, could not have known about their fathers acts of love. Our interpretations may vary–which is the sign of a good poem.

Those Winter Sundays - Key takeaways

  • Robert Hayden published Those Winter Sundays in 1962.
  • Those Winter Sundays is about a speaker who recalls their fathers acts of love that went unnoticed at the time.
  • Robert Hayden employs contrast and varied sentence structure to demonstrate the speakers present-day realization about their fathers tenderness in the past.
  • The speakers tone is nostalgic, appreciative, and mature. Some interpret the tone to have a tinge of regret and remorse, while others read it as self-assured.
  • The themes of Those Winter Sundays are the effects of maturity on memory, the father and child relationship, and recognizing previously unnoticed acts of love.

Frequently Asked Questions about Those Winter Sundays

The poem “Those Winter Sundays” is about realizing much later in life the acts of love a father once did.

Although there is no explicit description of abuse in “Those Winter Sundays,” the speaker implies the conditions at home were harsh and uncomfortable.

The line “hands that ached … made banked fires blaze” (lines 3-5) means the father warmed the house by stoking the fire in the fireplace.

The tone of the poem “Those Winter Sundays” is mature, appreciative, and nostalgic for the past.

“Those Winter Sundays” is not explicitly about abuse; instead, it’s about the speaker realizing the acts of love the father did that went unobserved.

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