A Reading of “Those Winter Sundays”
In Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays” a relationship between the speaker and the speaker’s father is expressed in short but descriptive detail, revealing a kind of love that had gone unnoticed for so long. Throughout the poem, Hayden’s use of connotative diction keeps the poem short and sweet yet packed with significant meaning. The evocative sound patterns play just as great a role setting the harsh and reflective tone of the poem. Together, these devices are used to effectively deliver the poem.
The speaker seems now to be a grown man, though it is not distinguished in the poem, remembering the distant relationship he had with his father as an adolescent. He would wake every morning to the warmth of a fire despite the biting cold which lay beyond the house windows and doors. The speaker took for granted the heat that he was provided, not acknowledging the effort that went into giving this simple expression of love. Now looking back, he seems to regret not being thankful for his father’s actions and being so blind and ignorant to the love that was right in front of him.
From the very first words of the poem, the connotative diction gives the reader an idea of the direction in which the poem in going. “Sundays too my father got up early” (line 1), where the poem begins, expresses the fathers hard-working nature. The fact that he gets out of bed every day of the work-week and Sundays too, shows that his job as a father and provider is arduous and never-ending. Even the use of the word father’ shows more of a respected figure, not a daddy, or a pops, but father’. The father did not acquire cracked hands from work in the cold, but rather “labor in the weekday weather” (line 4). Labor today one would associate with farming, working in a factory; very hard physical work’, making the role of the father in this case seem all the more laborious. The first stanza ends with “No one ever thanked him” (line 5) which gives the poem a brief pause, leading the reader to assume that perhaps his father has passed away recently. The love shown by the speaker’s father is now recognized, but it is too late to give thanks. When the speaker wakes and his father calls him downstairs, he dresses slowly for he fears the “chronic angers of that house” (line 9). Chronis angers,’ the reason for the boy’s hesitation to dress and go downstairs, illustrates the extreme amount of tension that must have been present in the house. The speaker mentions talking indifferently to his father, followed by “who had driven out the cold” (line 11) as though now he recognizes that he had never treated his father as a loving one even though he got up every morning to do this great chore for his family. The poem ends with the question “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lovely offices?” (line 14) admitting the speakers adolescent ignorance and obvious answer of nothing. The way the author chose and arranged these words completely defines the story he is trying to tell and the point he is trying to make.
The diction, though a very powerful device, is not the only tool Hayden uses to fuel this poem. The use of sound patterns creates a sense of aural imagery, pulling the reader even deeper into the poetry. In the first stanza, the on-going hard-K sound contributes to the harsh tone which reflects the distance between the father and son. It also seemed symbolic of the freezing weather and the cracked hands that the father endured every cold morning. The “blueblack cold” (line 2) makes the weather sound painful, painfully cold and unbearable. In the second stanza the words “splintering/breaking” (line 6) almost make the warmth seeping into the rooms of the house audible. The repetition of the hard-k sound makes it so one can almost hear the crunching of icy snow, the echoing crack of tree branches in the distance, the popping sound of blazing wood in the fireplace. Alliteration plays a key role in the development of this poem, giving it a sensuous edge that reaches out and grabs hold of the reader’s emotions.
The combination of Hayden’s word use and sound patterns found throughout the poem makes this piece successful. The descriptive diction puts the poem into a simple format using few but extremely meaningful words that tell a short but detailed part of the story in every line. The other influential device that makes this poem work is the use of sound patterns, more specifically alliteration. The use of alliteration lets the reader feel the poem, evoking the emotions that coincide with each line: sadness; regret; empathy; thankfulness. This poem’s success is a product of these tools that effectively deliver a powerful message of unrecognized love.