Robert Hayden notebook
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. 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?
commentary.This poem about a child and his father, or more properly, a grown man looking back at his childhood attitude toward his father's "austere and lonely offices," is simple enough to grasp on its face -- the father is a hard working, harsh, angry sort of man and the son is an ungrateful, fearful, unappreciative, indifferent child. It is a pattern that should be familiar to many parents and children. Parents slave and do the chores for their kids, only to be unappreciated for it. The children (both young and adolescent) are incapable of sharing the perspective of the parent's eye view. They don't understand the early rising, the sources of the anger, or the sense of responsibility burdening the parent. And they can't understand why the parents are incapable of communicating the kind of love and affection they need from them. It is only in retrospect, now that the child has grown into an adult, perhaps now that he is a parent himself, that he finally becomes aware of the love the father had for him.
We should also explore the father's male identity. What is the role of the father, the man, in the traditional American household? He's hard working, he's responsible for the heavy manual labor. This particular father is a working class man -- his hands are cracked, arthritic from his outside day job. As a male role model, he is incapable of expressing his love for the child in any kind of affectionate way. Love for him is a severe and solitary duty. And yet the love is there. Even on Sundays, the day of rest, this father is up early working hard. He has "driven out the cold" from the house. He has polished the boy's shoes. All his love is displaced or channeled into other behaviors, into action, labor, work, duty.
Hayden does a fine job at conveying the harshness of this working life through his imagery, even the sound of his word choices convey something of the father's austerity: "blueblack cold," "cracked hands that ached," "banked fires blaze," "cold splintering, breaking," "chronic angers," "driven out the cold." Not the extensive use of hard consonants (c's and k's and b's). With the exception of the polishing of the boy's shoes (which in itself is also labor intensive, yet doesn't have the same splintering connotations as the other work performed by the father), the behaviors described are harsh and violent. No wonder the boy is afraid. As sad as this poem is (it's hard to ignore the tone of regret in the speaker's voice, signified by the repetition of "what did I know," as if he's reproaching himself for his own ignorance), the speaker has gained some wisdom, a new appreciation for his father, and for the ways that love can be, must be, expressed. The last line of the poem really delivers the goods with impact. As Robert Pinsky has observed, the diction of "love's austere and lonely offices" sounds icy, cold, and chilling, a perfect complement to the sense of the poem.
In a biographical excerpt from The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, we learn that Hayden had a rough childhood growing up in the Detroit ghetto. If "Those Winter Sundays" is autobiographical (a logical inference to make in this case), it's worth noting how the poem understates the violence and anger that afflicted his family household. He could have described more harrowing, frightening, violent scenes from childhood. Instead, he chooses to allude to these events; he lets his imagery and tone evoke the mood. Sometimes in poetry, less is more. For more articles and links related to Hayden, see the Modern American Poetry site at the University of Illinois. Our textbook also contains a biographical overview.