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Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
This poem is 14 lines, broken into three stanzas. It has no set rhyme scheme and is told throughout as a remembrance narrative.
The Speaker tells us that “Sundays too” his father arose early. Phrasing the line in this way creates the sense that we are joining a conversation already in progress rather than hearing one begin. The phrasing also indicates to us that the Speaker’s father wakes up early at other times than on Sundays. He continues by describing his father as a man with “cracked hands that ached” from his work. Learning this information creates in the Reader a sense of sympathy for the father as it tells us that his father self-sacrificially deal with pain in order to warm the house with a fire. Starkly, after painting this picture, the first stanza ends with the Speaker telling us that “No one ever thanked him.” This line sets up a retrospective self-criticism that occurs in the second and third stanzas.
The Speaker tells us that the fire was already ablaze by the time he woke. He then describes himself as slow moving before again ending the stanza with another stark and mood-altering line. The Speaker tells us that he feared “the chronic angers of that house.” This sentence alters the picture presented from one of a loving and unappreciated father to something else. We may have a loving father who cares for his family, even when they do not appreciate it. However, we may also have a father who is angry enough over these circumstances that his son fears to get out of bed. He may also be abusive.
We do not know the source of the “angers” mentioned. It could be that the anger is not directed at the Speaker specifically but is instead a more general derived from difficult circumstances. Alternatively, given the poem’s focus on the father-son relationship, the angers referred to may be directed at the Speaker. The Reader can fill in the gap on our own. It seems likely that both conclusions are true.
The Speaker again redirects the poem’s focus to self-criticism as he states that he spoke “indifferently” to his father. This indifference is then made worse when he tells us that his father also polished his good shoes in addition to starting the fire. The change back to self-criticism reduces the sense that there is an abusive relationship between father and son. However, it does not eliminate that possibility. In the father character, the Speaker may be telling us of a man who is both self sacrificial in his love and also abusive. The Reader is left in the dark as to whether or not the relationship between father and son ever improves. Instead, the Speaker leaves the Reader with what seems to represent his own feelings of guilt. Perhaps age and understanding allows him to forgive his father even as he struggles to forgive himself.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
Here as the poem concludes, we see the Speaker recognizing, with the benefit of hindsight, that his father loved him. He conveys a sense of guilt over their tension and his failure to appreciate him for that love and to thank him for it. The conclusion the poem creates an impression with the Reader that the father and son never reconciled.
Who is Robert Hayden?
Robert Hayden (August 4, 1913 – February 25, 1980) was an American poet, essayist, and educator. He served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1976 to 1978, a role today known as US Poet Laureate. He was the first African-American writer to hold the office.
Robert Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey in Detroit, Michigan, to Ruth and Asa Sheffey, who separated before his birth. He was taken in by a foster family next door, Sue Ellen Westerfield and William Hayden, and grew up in a Detroit ghetto nicknamed “Paradise Valley“. The Haydens’ perpetually contentious marriage, coupled with Ruth Sheffey’s competition for her son’s affections, made for a traumatic childhood. Witnessing fights and suffering beatings, Hayden lived in a house fraught with “chronic anger”, the effects of which would stay with him throughout his life. On top of that, his severe visual problems prevented him from participating in activities such as sports in which nearly everyone else was involved. His childhood traumas resulted in debilitating bouts of depression that he later called “my dark nights of the soul”.
Because he was nearsighted and slight of stature, he was often ostracized by his peers. In response, Hayden read voraciously, developing both an ear and an eye for transformative qualities in literature. He attended Detroit City College later called Wayne State University with a major in Spanish and minor in English, and left in 1936 during the Great Depression, one credit short of finishing his degree, to go to work for the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project, where he researched black history and folk culture.
Leaving the Federal Writers’ Project in 1938, Hayden married Erma Morris in 1940 and published his first volume, Heart-Shape in the Dust (1940). He enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1941 and won a Hopwood Award there. Raised as a Baptist, he followed his wife into the Baháʼí Faith during the early 1940s, and raised a daughter, Maia, in the religion. Hayden became one of the best-known Baháʼí poets. Erma Hayden was a pianist and composer and served as supervisor of music for Nashville public schools.
In pursuit of a master’s degree, Hayden studied under W. H. Auden, who directed his attention to issues of poetic form, technique, and artistic discipline. Auden’s influence may be seen in the “technical pith of Hayden’s verse”. After finishing his degree in 1942, then teaching several years at Michigan, Hayden went to Fisk University in 1946, where he remained for twenty-three years, returning to Michigan in 1969 to complete his teaching career. Concurrent with his teaching responsibilities at Fisk, he served as poet-in-residence at Indiana State University in 1967 and visiting poet at the University of Washington in 1969, the University of Connecticut in 1971, Dennison University in 1972, and Connecticut College in 1974.
As a supporter of his religion’s teaching of the unity of humanity, Hayden could never embrace Black separatism.
He died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on February 25, 1980, aged 66.
In 2012 the U.S. Postal Service issued a pane of stamps featuring ten great Twentieth Century American Poets, including Hayden.