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"Poetry, we believe, is special, magical, spontaneous. Lightning strikes, the muse comes down, the poet gets possessed by a fit of high emotion or a tidal wave of feeling and sensibility and presto! a poem falls out of his head the way a star falls out of the summer sky" (de Roche 1). Indeed, a poem is an impressive piece of literature, sometimes more complex and more dramatic than a novel. It doesn't have to be long to leave a lasting impression, either. In just a few lines it can evoke certain emotions and convey strong ideas to its readers. Such is the case with the poem "Those Winter Sundays", one of the most popular poems of Robert Hayden.
"Those Winter Sundays" Laid Bare
"Those Winter Sundays" tells about a father from his child's point of view. The first line "Sundays too my father got up early" (Hayden 1) indicates that the father wakes up early everyday, presumably part of his sacrifice to earn a living for his family as head of the household. The rest of the lines in the first stanza paint the picture of a father who, though it is still dark and though he is tired from working most of the week, tends to the fire - a task he takes upon himself and has never received gratitude for.
The second stanza describes the child getting up, first waking up to the cold then eventually being enveloped by the warmth of the house that his father started. In spite of the warmth, though, he is not eager to get out of bed but rather, tries to delay joining his father, "fearing the chronic angers of that house" (Hayden 9).
Finally, the last stanza describes the relationship between the child and his father. Even when they are together, they talk like strangers, and in the end, the child asks "What did I know, what did I know of love's austere and lonely offices?" (Hayden 13, 14) which states that his father's behavior - his dedication to his family's welfare in spite of the indifference he gets in return - is a puzzle to him and yet, he asks this not grudgingly, but with a tinge of sympathy for his father and also perhaps silent admiration.
According to many critics, the poem references Hayden's depressing childhood. Hayden's parents were separated before his birth and therefore, he had to be placed in the care of a foster family, one that had a lot of problems of its own - the "chronic angers" that Hayden mentioned. In particular, the poem is said to be a tribute to Hayden's foster father, William Hayden, and can be taken as a token of his appreciation for his foster father's efforts - the appreciation he was never able to show - as well as his admiration for his father's hard work and his silent endurance of the family's problems, and regret for not having taken steps to know him better and developed a closer relationship with him.
In the poem, Hayden chooses his words carefully so that his imagery matches his tone. Imagery is defined as a poet's selection of words to stimulate the senses and create certain images and sensations - "the ability to find the word that is exactly right to the physical fact" (Ciardi 670) - whereas "Tone tells us whether a poet is solemn or comic about his subject, whether he is being serious or being a clown" (de Roche 25).
In the first half of the poem, Hayden presents an imagery of the cold. In fact, he uses the word 'cold' twice, first in the second line - "And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold" (Hayden 2) - and again in the sixth - "I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking" (Hayden 6). There is also a mention of darkness with the use of the word "blueblack", perhaps an indication that dawn has yet to come. Here, we can see that the tone of the author is sad and solemn. The chill is not only a physical one but also evidently one present in the heart of the author as he describes how hard his father works in the cold and the dark, at how difficult things must have been for him and yet he never complained or asked for gratitude.
In the second half, the imagery of the cold is gradually driven out by warmth. The rooms had become warm and the child gets out of his bed to join his father. At the same time, the tone, though still sad, becomes a tad lighter. There is not only the regret and pity but appreciation and even admiration that the author has for his father.
One of the good things about poems is the use of sound devices which make poems more delightful to read. In "Those Winter Sundays", Hayden foregoes using rhyme, but still makes use of other devices such as alliteration - 'blueblack', 'weekday weather', 'banked fires blaze'; assonance - "good shoes"; and consonance - "rise and dress". There is also a mixture of euphony and cacophony, though the former is more apparent, especially in the first stanza.
The poem is not very rich in figurative language, being relatively short and quite straightforward. The main figure of speech used is personification, as cold is described as being 'blueblack' as well as 'splintering and breaking', in both cases, used so as to emphasize the cold imagery of the poem. There is also the description of 'love's austere and lonely offices' which can mean hearts overcome with emptiness and suffering.
All in all, the poem is a good one, though short, one that "is not only a reward in itself but a living experience that deepens every man's sense of life" (Ciardi 670). Indeed, it is not only the recalling of a poignant childhood memory but the moving rendition of a father's love and sacrifice, best illustrated in what he did during 'those winter Sundays' and the resulting feelings of the child those sacrifices were made for.