Poem Guide

Robert Hayden: “Those Winter Sundays”

A lost father warms a house.
Robert Hayden

If there were a Top of the Pops for poetry, Robert Hayden’s "Those Winter Sundays" would be on it. The poem was ranked the 266th most anthologized poem in English in a 2003 Columbia University Press survey. This put it nearly 100 spots ahead of "Paul Revere’s Ride" (#313), but still lagging far behind Robert Frost’s "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (ranked 6th).

Born in 1913, Hayden grew up in a destitute African American section of Detroit known as Paradise Valley. A neighbor’s family adopted him at the age of two when his parents separated and his mother could no longer afford to keep him. His adoptive father was a strict Baptist and manual laborer. Still, the new family nurtured Hayden’s early literary interests, and as a teenager, he was immersed in the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and in traditional poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Carl Sandburg.

While in college Hayden studied with the English poet W.H. Auden, who stressed a poetics of technical precision, for which Hayden was naturally suited. Poetic form would always remain important to him. Technique, he once said, enables discovery and definition in a poem, and it provides a way of "solving the unknowns."

In 1940, Hayden published his first volume of tidy lyrics called Heart-Shape in the Dust. The book drew little attention. But that would change. For the next forty years Hayden’s precise style would become widely acclaimed. In 1976 he was the first African-American to serve as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the post we now call U.S. Poet Laureate. He died in 1980. "Those Winter Sundays" is his heart-wrenching domestic masterpiece, and very much a poem of discovery and definition.

What it discovers is a synchronicity of sound that embodies the poem’s spirit of reconciliation. Listen to the K sounds: blueblack, cracked, ached, weekday, banked, thanked, wake, breaking, call, chronic. That percussive, consonant-cooked vocabulary is like a melodic map into how to read the poem, linking the fire, the season, the father, and his son.

Then there’s what the poem defines, unspoken love. It begins with the father toward the son, when he makes the fire. Then, the unspoken love is returned, when the adult son asks, "What did I know, what did I know...?" The tone of that repetition—more statement than question—cuts from indifference to guilt to admiration. It’s a fast moment in the poem that blossoms into the last word, "offices," a metaphor that expresses the endurance required of long-term love, of manual labor, and of the official fatherly role.

Yet it all begins with that quiet, understated opening line ("Sundays, too, my father got up early"), which defines Hayden’s initial memory, as well as bringing to mind the other unmentioned six days of the week—and for how many years?—when the father began each day in the cold darkness, to warm up the home for his still-dreaming child.

Reprinted from David Biespiel's monthly column on poetry for the Sunday Book Review of The Oregonian.

Originally Published: October 11th, 2007

Poet, critic, and writer David Biespiel was born in 1964 and grew up in Houston, Texas. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners (2014) and The Book of Men and Women (2013), winner of the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His books of essays include a book on...

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  1. November 29, 2006

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  2. February 13, 2009

    This poem is one of my all-time favorites as both poet and teacher. I will be teaching it tomorrow during our Harlem Renaissance unit, and this article will be helpful.

  3. March 3, 2009
     Eli Feldman

    The use of the words blueblack, cracked,ached,weekday,banked,thanked,wake breaking,call,chronic were used as sound element that provided major emphasis of the metaphor of love being austere. The words also provided me with the context. The k sounds when I read flowed, and made me visualize the hardworking father. The effectiveness and understanding of a poem’s delivery depends upon the knowledge of the reader to interpret how the words are to be read and the reader‘s relevance to the work. “Those Winter Sunday’s” as the title really set the tone. The context, the family's status, the chronic angers, and the repetition of “what did I know what did I know…“?, were all different details that were drawn from the poem’s use of language that provided the reader with the meaning and the different symbolic elements. Each person can define the poem a different way. The poem enabled discovery and your own interpretation that is not necessarily wrong or right. The poem’s perspective of the child as a son to an adult was shown by the internal form. Part of the reason why the poem was so powerful was because of the last line. All the details lead up to the metaphor. I was able to draw the meaning of the unspoken love. A part of the reason why I was really drawn into this poem was because I had some relevance to it. My father has a way of showing love that is unspoken. The way he would make me breakfast in the morning without me asking and take me from destination A to destination B, regardless of all the constant hard work he has to do, shows love . This poem provided me with a heart warming feeling of my own father. This made wonder if the author was relating the poem to his own father.

  4. March 4, 2009
     Melissa S.

    I thought the strong use of description and imagery was what made this poem stand out. On more than one occasion, Hayden forces the 'cold setting' on the audience.

    When he says,"I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.." every reader imagines a different level of climate.

    I liked this poem because although it was short, I felt like I understood very clearly what the poet was trying to display.

  5. March 6, 2009
     Jordan Carlson

    Those winter Sundays by Robert Hayden is a wonderful poem that describes the realization and awakening that a child develops for his fathers work effort and love. The author writes the poem as a reflection as to remember the dedicated pain staking work the father engaged in on a regular basis, working even on Sundays. The critique Biespiel describes the poem as a heart-wrenching domestic masterpiece, one in which the message evolves and develops as the reader reads each additional line. Biespiel emphasis on vivid word choice such as blue-black, cracked, wake and chronic serve to illuminate the image of a father’s hard work and dedication, all of which in the beginning appears to go unnoticed. Biespiel comments on the repetition of the consonant sound k in the vivid image rich vocabulary that is used throughout the poem. He comments that these words serve in linking the connection between the father, the son and the harsh weather. I personally believe that the transition in words and phrases such as blue-back cold to banked fires blaze and cold splintering to driven out the cold, serve to illustrate how the father’s back braking consistent work served to change and deter cold and darkness and bring about subtle forms of warmth and love. I thought the last few lines of the poem that Biespiel mentions serve in showing the appreciation and realization that the author develops for his father choice of hard work as a means of relaying and expressing his love for the child and the family. I completely agree with Biespiel in the authors choice of words in the beginning of the poem (Sunday’s too) in reiterating the sacrifices the father made in his own comfort for the rest of the family. Lastly the use of imagery is used effectively in conveying the overall theme which is that of certain forms of love being austere.

  6. March 7, 2009

    The opening line of this poem, “Sundays too,” implies that this poem is a reflection on the past of a common occurrence that took place. The first and second stanza refers in detail to the sacrifices made by the father, and in illustrating this, the poet reveals his awareness of the arduous nature of these tasks. I feel as though it is important to note the caesura in the first stanza; the only period that breaks the imagery of what had taken place, is the poets expression of guilt as to what had not, “No one ever thanked him.” Certainly this poem deals with the subject of unspoken love, but also, unacknowledged love from the perspective of a child. Perhaps the inability for a child to perceive the complexities and intricacies of the expression of love through means other than emotional affection serves as an even greater moral to be derived.

  7. March 8, 2009
     Trisha C

    yes, this poem defines the idea of unspoken love, the discovery of that love, the guilt but I also sence regret in this poem. Especialy in the 5th line of the first stanza when he says " No one ever thanked him." and in line 13 of the last stanza," what did I know, what did I know" as if he wishes he could turn the clock back. As an adult he seems to be looking back and regreting that he didnot understand the sacrifices of love that his father had made for him, that he couldnot perseive those actions as anything more than a fathers obligation to his family.As an adult he is finally able to understand and there is a new admiration for his father in this discovery. I really enjoyed this poem because it makes me think of my own fathers daily sacrifices of love.

  8. March 9, 2009
     Tara W.

    The speaker reminisces about his childhood and waking up early in the morning to the sounds of his father moving about the cold house trying to start a fire. The poem begins with, "Sundays too my father got up early," refers to how religious the father was about keeping his family warm. The father does this task out of love and duty every morning including, "Sundays too." There is a strong repetition of the letter k and c sound through out the entire poem, "clothes, blueblack, cold, cracked, ached, banked, thanked, wake, breaking, call, chronic." This sound affect gives the poem a steady flow. But the words that standout to this reader are,"blueblack, cold, cracked, ached, banked, breaking, and chronic," really illistrates the father's dedication and sacrifice to his family's wellbeing. To wake up early in the morning by yourself and begin work without any thanks "No one ever thanked him," (line five) is a true example of unconditional love.

  9. September 2, 2009
     Nicole Willis

    My first response when I read this poem was sadness. The harsh realities for the child in the poem and the same harsh realities for the father. The seeming fact that the child did not realize until too late that love was shown all along. His inability to then relate his thanks for that austere form of love. "no one ever thanked him."
    The second reading was less sad in that there seemed an undercurrent of the poet realizing that there was love all along. Even if unreconised as the child.

  10. October 25, 2009
     Zach Metzler

    I too thought that the "what did i know" line that was repeated was very powerful. It's the heartbeat of the whole poem and gets across many feelings and emotions at once: anger at self, regret, sorrow, gratitude, love.. etc.