[Jeannine Johnson is a freelance writer who has taught at Yale University. In the following essay, Johnson provides a close reading of “Those Winter Sundays,” concluding that "Hayden's poem honors the value of love's simple, domestic services in our lives."]
From the very first words of Robert Hayden's “Those Winter Sundays”, we realize that for everything the poem says, there is something else that remains unspoken. The words on the page explicitly state a certain meaning but they also imply, or indicate without directly stating, much more. For instance, the poem begins with the words “Sundays too my father got up early,” suggesting that this line continues a thought expressed before the beginning of the poem. The simple phrase “Sundays too” implies two things. First, it implies that the father's actions took place on Sundays as well as on every other day of the week. It seems to continue an unspoken sentence that might read, “On every day, Monday through Saturday, and even on Sundays too my father got up early.” Second, it implies that there might be something uncommon or unexpected about the fact that the poet's father got up early on Sundays. Sunday may be distinguished from other days as a traditional day of rest from the regular work week. In addition, in Christian religions, Sunday is set aside as a day of worship. As we read through the rest of the poem, we should bear in mind these special associations with Sunday morning.
The first line of the poem, which refers to “my father,” establishes a first-person speaker It also shows that the speaker is recalling a time when he was a child. This line is grouped with four other lines and together they make up the poem's first section, or stanza. In the rest of the stanza, the poet describes his father's actions. He tells us that after awakening early, his father would get dressed and build a fire. But the first stanza says much more than this. The poet says his father dressed “in the blueblack cold,” indicating exactly how early he arose. His father got up before the house received the sun's light and warmth, and therefore before dawn. But the unusual word “blueblack” creates a more precise visual image of that nearly pitch-dark time before sunrise than do the ordinary words “before dawn.” We know from the fact that someone in the family had to build a fire to warm the house that this was not a rich family with servants, for instance. Also, since this was a house without central heating, we might further conclude that its inhabitants were probably poor.
In the first stanza the poet describes his father's hands with many suggestive terms. He calls his father's hands “cracked” and tells that they “ached / from labor in the weekday weather.” We know from the title of the poem and from the need for a fire that these events take place during the winter. Thus, when the poet says that his father labored in “the weekday weather,” he not only informs us that his father worked outside but reminds us with the word “weather” that he worked during the cold winter. By referring to his father's hands as “cracked” and aching, the poet calls attention to the fact that he performed manual labor. In so doing the poet also illustrates his own present sympathy for his father's past deeds. Significantly, this sympathetic description is from the point of view of an adult remembering and not from the perspective of a child observing his father. For the speaker tells us that when he was a child, he did not recognize the efforts and sacrifices his father made. The poet states that “No one ever thanked him,” revealing that others in his family were as unappreciative of his father as he was.
The point of view of the poet as a child governs all of the second stanza and most of the third. He recalls waking up and listening to “the cold splintering, breaking.” Here the poet makes use of figurative language to more richly describe the sound of the fire his father had made. We would expect him to say that it was the firewood, and not the cold, that the child heard “splintering” and “breaking.” The poet applies these two verbs (“splintering” and “breaking”) which are associated with the sense of hearing to a noun (“the cold”) that is associated with a general sense of touch or physical feeling. (The technical term for this poetic method of describing one sensory faculty in the terms of another is called “synaesthesia.”) What was important to the child was that the house was getting warmer, and therefore he connected the sound of the crackling fire with his anticipation of not feeling cold when he got out of bed.
The child seems to have dreaded the chilly emotional atmosphere of his home as much as its physical coolness. Though he feared the “chronic angers of that house,” we do not witness any verbal or physical battles between family members. In fact, most of the poem points to a kind of deliberate silence among them. The father never heard words of thanks from his family, and the only conversation in the poem is recorded indirectly. The speaker remembers that “When the rooms were warm, he'd call,” but he does not explicitly quote his father. In addition, the poet recalls himself “Speaking indifferently” to his father, but again he offers this information without quotation. By these indirect summaries, the poet emphasizes that these were habitual, common interactions: what each person said was not unique and not worth a specific quote. But this lack of quotation in the poem also reflects the impaired communication among family members who were subject to the “chronic” or ongoing angers of the house. The word “indifferently” may point to the child's attempt to hide or protect his feelings in a hostile environment.
The child's indifference also reveals his attitude that these interactions with his father lacked significance for him at the time, perhaps because they were so common and familiar. But for the adult poet, it is precisely the predictability and ordinariness of his father's actions (and of the poet's own) that make them special to him now. At this point we should recall that these ordinary events occurred on an extraordinary day, Sunday. And the poet reminds us of exactly this fact when he writes that his father regularly drove out the cold “and polished my good shoes as well.” We may presume that the child wore these polished shoes, along with his best clothes, to church services. Again the poet uses a simple phrase, “good shoes,” to imply an unstated comparison with ordinary, weekday shoes. Furthermore, with those two words he makes it clear, without expressly stating, that it is Sunday.
The meaning of the poem remains somewhat open-ended, given that it closes with a question rather than a definitive statement. And the final question itself allows no easy interpretation. Since the poet repeats “What did I know, what did I know,” we should take particular notice both of that line and of the line that follows. Repetition is one way a poet calls attention to an idea, and in a poem as short as “Those Winter Sundays,” a repeated phrase has great significance. The repetition underscores a tone of uncertainty and disbelief in the poet's question. It is as though the poet, reflecting on his own ingratitude, has difficulty admitting his former ignorance or lack of feeling. On the other hand, the repeated phrase may also sound a note of defiance. The poet may want to defend or excuse his thoughtlessness as an inevitable part of his immaturity. The ambiguity of the tone of this question may reflect the poet's own ambivalence toward his father and toward his childhood. For, while the poet may regret his indifference toward his father's acts of love, he still feels some of the pain of the “chronic angers” for which his father was also responsible.
Whatever the tone, this final question distinguishes the adult poet from the young child. The adult recognizes what the child could not, namely, the sacrifices that are bound up in a parent's love for his or her child. We should note that there is something strange about the poet calling love's actions “lonely” and “austere.” These two words emphasize solitude and strictness or even unkindness, concepts that we would not normally associate with love. But this seeming contradiction is precisely what the poet wishes to portray. His idea of love is that it has many conflicting qualities and that it expresses itself in complex ways. Importantly, the poet chooses “offices” to refer to his father's actions and to stand as the poem's last word. This term can mean “services” or “functions,” pointing to the idea that love serves its object. “Offices” also connotes “rites,” especially in the sense of religious observances. The last word of the poem then implies that the father's deeds should be viewed as having all the ceremony and solemnity of a religious ritual. The end of the poem contains a moment of celebration, but it is a serious celebration, marked by a small sadness or remorse. Nevertheless, rather than foregrounding the Sunday customs of traditional religion, Hayden's poem honors the value of love's simple, domestic services in our lives.