Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” Essay

     Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” (1962) is reflective of the typical paternal-progenital relationship. It is not difficult to find an analogy between the poem’s message and our domestic relationships. The poem conveys life! My choice of “Those Winter Sundays” is deeply influenced by its congruence with my life experiences. It is a perennial reminder of my filial inadequacies, indebtedness and duties to my parents. In some ways, I deem a lot of families are trapped in that circumstance too- primarily because the parent-child age and mentality differences, and reverential relationship create a communication and emotional divide, making it a challenge for them to resolve their issues.

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     An ambience of indifference and gloom runs throughout the entire poem, giving it a distinct feeling of misery. Robert Hayden’s piece is a free verse and narrative in that the speaker (a son/daughter in this case) narrates in a regretful tone his indifference and inadequacies as a child. Employing Sundays for the title “Those Winter Sundays” is suggestive of the circumstance when the family has to be together as an aggregate, unified force.

There is an overriding religious and cultural reason for taking Sundays as universal rest days. The multiple use of the word cold (2, 6, 11) is meant to imbue the poem with a distinctive flair of gloom, indifference and lack of affection.

     The second line, “And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold”, talks about the father putting on a firm, paternal resolve, feigning unconcern to his cold relationship to his child. Unfortunately, the hands skilled at protecting and providing for his family are the same hands that, for discipline’s excuse, are intimidating and creating a relationship divide between him and his children. With the father’s efforts, however, the son would “wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking- the collapse of the emotional and communication gap they are engulfed in. “Fearing the chronic angers of the house” is analogous to a progenital fear of approaching the paternal figure, often masked as reverential fear, and a domestic history of paternal indifference that drives his brood away.

     The indifferent remark, “Who had driven out the cold”, is suggestive of a child’s query on who made the domestic setting habitable, made life possible and initiated a process by which the whole family can achieve a sense of unity and warmth. The phrase, “And polished my good shoes as well”, is symbolic in that the mere fact of having good shoes in the midst of economic woes (a blue-collared job father is implied) is telling of an extra effort on the paternal figure to provide not just for necessity, but for affordable luxury as well. Polishing his good shoes is a sacrificial extra at making his progeny conform to society’s economic and cultural expectations.

     Regretful-toned as the poem may be it is not bereft of imagery. Its visual imageries includes “. . . in the blueblack cold” (2), “cracked hands that ached” (3), “banked fires blaze” (5) while the auditory imagery is “hear the cold splintering, breaking” (8). “In the blueblack cold” gives the poem an ambience of desolation, gloom and misery; with the colors blue and black taken to denote a lack of cheer and excitement. The term “cracked hands that ached” beyond implying the father’s tireless pursuits for economic and financial survival, can be suggestive of his inner sensitivities and spiritual wear from not begetting enough affection from his family (“No one ever thanked him”).

The fifth phrase, “Banked fires blaze”, apparently made by the father, is suggestive of his efforts to reach out and maintain his core family albeit his physical fatigue and nonchalant facade. Banked fires are those covered with ashes or earth to keep it alive while burning low. The auditory imagery, “hear the cold splintering, breaking” is appealing to our senses as the breaking/splitting of a sharp, biting cold into oblivious fragments, a less affecting emotional divide.

     The last two lines, “What did I know, what did I know”/ “Of love’s austere and lonely offices?”, sets the theme of the whole poem. His father’s love remained clouded by his indifferent disposition for a long time that viewing his father as a loving and affectionate figure became too way off. Parents are often faced with the dilemma of raising their children in either a lenient or tough manner, their decision primarily based on the foreseen effects. In more industrialized, fast-paced environments, however, parents usually emphasize on discipline, thinking it is necessary to catapult them into success and lead better lives. Only with the onset of maturity will children come to a realization that all that discipline is meant to acclimate them to the demands of the real world and make them better off.

     The poem narrates in a creative yet subtly formal diction. The word offices in “… lonely offices” is a metaphor suggesting the presence of transactional, stiff dealings and predictable emotional exchanges. Alliterations include clothes/cold, weekday/weather, banked/blaze, when/warm, of/offices, love’s/lonely. There is assonance in then/hands, cracked/that, labor/made, good/shoes, and consonance in weekday/made.

     A paraphrase of “Those Winter Sundays” is as follows. Even on Sundays, my father gets up and dresses up early. He makes banked fires blaze albeit physical wear from a week’s labor. Nobody ever thanks him. He would call us once the rooms are warm and I would wake and dress. I would speak indifferently to him for fear of anger and rejection. I asked who set up the banked fires and polished my good shoes. I would then realize my father’s great love.

     I share some common experiences with the speaker. During our childhood, we didn’t understand our father’s love toward us. I went to high school in Australia before coming to the United States. My father sends me money every month but I never expressed appreciation because he doesn’t send me any extra money to spend with my friends. (“No one ever thanked him.”) My father always calls after sending the money and urges me, in a blunt speech, not to waste money. I really hated it when he checks how I spent the money. I hated him for scolding me if the money was used for something that he thinks I am not supposed to buy. (“Fearing the chronic angers of the house”)

For these reasons, my hatred of my father is bigger than my appreciation for his support. After graduating from high school in 2001, I came back to my country. Because of hatred, I avoided having any conversation with my father and answered him shortly whenever he would speak to me. (Speaking indifferently to him) Later on, my mother found out that I didn’t have good relations with my father and she explained what happened to my father’s business when I was in Australia. A financial crisis overtook Asia in 1997 and Korea’s economy was not spared, even in danger in 1998.

The economic crisis almost drove my father’s company out of business because he didn’t have enough money for his debt payments. Amidst all these, my father still persevered on sending me money for my education although he didn’t even have enough for himself. (And polished my good shoes as well) I was appalled hearing all these from my mother and felt my heart was breaking. I felt ashamed for thinking of getting extra money for fun with my friends while my father was in hunger, saving money for my education. (What did I know/Of love’s austere and lonely offices?)

     Parental love has its faces, is often masked by a discordant and stiff attitude but it thrives in the most austere of dwellings. Maturity will make us realize how we have been as children and our worthiness in being possible parents. If we really deserve to be somebody else’s parent, it will definitely come our way. It came our parent’s way. They do deserve to be our parent.

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