Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden: The Main Undertone of Regret
Born in 1913 into a family which abandoned him, poet Robert Hayden grew up in a rough household and it was not until he was forty that he discovered his original name (Schlib and Clifford 318). Despite all the obstacles he faced, Hayden still went on to teach at a handful of universities (Schlib and Clifford 318). His childhood story is just one of the many among most people. Parents are often put in very challenging positions and are expected to handle anything and everything that is thrown at them. Sometimes they respond appropriately and other times they may struggle. In “Those Winter Sundays,” by Robert Hayden, we see the speaker look back at his childhood and his reaction to his father’s duties as a parent.
As the first stanza begins, it immediately starts off describing the tough life that the father of the family must bear with the line ‘Sundays too my father gets up early,’ (Hayden 318; line 1). Not only does this imply that he regularly gets up in the early hours of the morning, but that he also does it on a day normally reserved for rest in western societies due to religion. With the fire almost out, the father is the one to get up ‘in the blueblack cold’ to stoke the fire (Hayden 318; line 2). This wording seems to illustrate the atmosphere of early winter mornings, with the sky producing a similar shade of dark blue. Another interesting aspect of the poem is the emphasis on the sounds of words which seem to make up for the lack of other poetic elements such as rhyme schemes. In this first stanza, there are several words which seem to relate to the challenging nature of the father’s life. Words like clothes, blueblack, cold, cracked, and ached all share a harsh ‘c’ sound which certainly relate in some way to the harshness of the environment (Hayden 318; lines 2-3). The father’s ‘cracked hands’ also tells us of the harsh nature of his work from throughout the week (Hayden 318; line 3). The final sentence is very short in comparison to those preceding it. ‘No one ever thanked him,’ (Hayden 318; line 4). This may be interpreted as a realization on the part of the speaker who is probably now grown up and looking back on his childhood. As a kid, all he saw was his dad doing his job which he did not quite understand the difficulty behind and it seems that he certainly, regrets not showing more gratitude.
While the first stanza introduced the father, this stanza focuses more on the viewpoint of the speaker/son. As he awoke, he heard ‘the cold splintering, breaking’ which refers the fire but also seems to put more emphasis on the frigid household (Hayden 318; line 6). Another idea that is introduced is that not everything is as splendid as it originally seemed. Since the boy feared ‘the chronic angers of that house,’ we can assume that their relationship is certainly more complicated and eerie than what was originally let on (Hayden 318; line 9). Here, the hard ‘c’ sound makes a return in the word ‘chronic’ and seems to depict the harsh emotions of between the two and how they are cold like the weather. This suggests that maybe the father is a challenging man to appreciate.
The final stanza of the poem continues to expand on the idea of regret. He mentions how he spoke ‘indifferently’ to his father which is not unusual for children as they are too young to fully understand everything going on (Hayden 318; line 10). However, he does seem to regret his lack of affection towards his father even though he maybe was a harder man to love as was mentioned in the last stanza. The speaker also seems to be taking more notice of what his father had done for him. Not only had he ‘driven out the cold,’ but he also ‘polished my good shoes as well’ (Hayden 318; lines 11-12). This seems to put emphasis on what his father had done for him as he had even done things that maybe were not expected of him but still did them. In the following line he repeats ‘what did I know’ which could be interpreted as a way of forgiving himself for his lack of understanding of what his father did for him (Hayden 318; line 13). How was he supposed to know about the sacrifices that his father made for him even if there was some tension in their relationship? In the final line of the poem, he touches on the idea of the obligations that parents have how hard it is to love. His father getting up early almost every morning alone must have been difficult, and the son has finally taken notice.
The tone of the poem is certainly one of regret. As children, it is hard to comprehend what it must be like to face obstacles of varying magnitude daily. In the poem, the speaker was oblivious for the longest time to the form that his father’s love had taken, and it was not until he had gone through life and experienced his own struggles that he was able to recognize this.
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