Those Winter Sundays Robert

HAYDEN (1962) Robert Hayden composed this 14-line elegy at a time when leading African-American artists promoted the notion that African-American poets must portray exclusively their own culture to support the struggle for freedom and equality (see the black arts movement). Rejecting such strictures from colleagues of any color or persuasion, Hayden created poems on various people and topics, despite sharp criticism from those who claimed that he betrayed his race.

"Those Winter Sundays" has been read autobio-graphically as expressing Hayden's conflicting feelings toward his foster father. It ranks high among poems on a child's emotional response to a parent (and can be profitably compared to Theodore roethkes "my papa's waltz" and Sylvia plaths "daddy"). Similar to a double exposure on film, the persona's boyhood routine merges with his perspective as an adult reevaluating his memories.

The speaker describes physical and emotional experience along with temperature changes and concomitant sounds. on Sundays his father makes a fire, cleans his son's Sunday shoes, and only wakes up his family once the rooms have warmed up. But the child gets up reluctantly for fear of "the chronic angers of that house," which represents both the creaky building and the disharmonious family. When the grown-up son remembers his father's work-worn hands, he understands that the Sunday family duties prevented them from healing. In contrast to soft-sounding alliterations on "bl" ("blueblack") and "w" ("weekday weather"), harsher sounds illustrate "the cold splintering, breaking" (emphasis added). The crackling of burning, disintegrating wood in an otherwise quiet home announces warmth, but, to the son, it prefigures the family's "chronic angers," which repeat the percussive k/kr-sounds of previous lines ("clothes," "blueblack cold," "cracked," "ached").

The adult persona illustrates his insights not only through sound patterns, but also by zeroing in on his responsibility. While the ending of the first stanza acknowledges that the family showed no appreciation for the father, the clearly personal narrative second stanza, in which the child awakes and rises, prepares for the third stanza, in which the speaker rebukes himself. As in the final line of the previous stanza, the speaker now uses the present continuous to stress the process, continuity, and current awareness of his ungratefulness for his father's kind deeds. The closing lines express despair at this insensitivity. Regretting his immature behavior, the grown son poetically defines his fathers Sunday sacrifices as "love's austere and lonely offices." While "austere" recalls the child's impression of a seemingly stern and cold father, "lonely" conveys the man's painful understanding of his fathers suffering at his son's indifference. The religious connotations of the final word, offices, elevate the father's devoted service to his family—as depicted throughout the poem—to the level of worship.


Eetrow, Ered M. Robert Hayden. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Hatcher, John. From the Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden. Oxon, England: George Ronald, 1984.

Nassim Winnie Balestrini

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