Considered one of his best pieces of work, Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” is a heartfelt and moving poem. Hayden’s poem tells from a boy’s perspective of his father. In the poem it is obvious that there is a distance between the two and a clear gap of communication as well. But nearing the end of the poem we find that though ignorant of it at that moment, love is actually present. Although only a 14-line poem, Hayden’s poem packs remarkable power and meaning into each line, using tone and subtle symbolism to amplify the overall effect of the poem.
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The poem is broken down into three stanzas of 5, 4 and 5 lines, respectively. In the first stanza of the poem, the subject of the poem is established; the father. In the second stanza, the narrator is introduced into the poem and the atmosphere of the house is further described. In the third and final stanza, the narrator tells how he still speaks ungratefully to his father and then admits his ignorance of his fathers simple love. The father is described as a hardworking man “with cracked hands that ached,” who woke up on “Sundays too” in the “blueback cold” to make “banked fires blaze” which “[drove] out the cold” and he would “[polish] [the narrator’s] good shoes as well” before waking the rest of the house. But “no one ever thanked him” for doing such things. From “labor in the weekday” and “with cracked hands that ached from labor” it is understood that the father is a working man, possibly a laborer who uses his hands extensively in his field of work leading to the belief that the father’s job is most probably a low-income job and as such; Sunday’s are probably his only day off of work, and so he would be expected to sleep in but he doesn’t. “The simple phrase ‘Sundays too’ â€¦ implies that the father’s actions took place on Sundays as well as on every other day of the week.” (Johnson) The father wakes early in the morning “in the blueback cold,” the father would wake early at his own discomfort so that his son, the narrator, would not have to wake until a certain level of comfort had been attained in the house. Not only that but the father also polishes a pair of the narrator’s “good shoes,” showing that he has provided his son with more than one pair of shoes. But then why is it that even after providing such physical luxuries that “no one ever thanked him?” Why is it that the narrator still “speak[s] indifferently to him?” Is it because the narrator is an ungrateful son, taking his father’s work for granted? Looking closer, it is realized that it is not only the poet that doesn’t “ever [thank] him” but that “NO ONE ever thanked him” (Gallagher). As such, the fault is shifted from son to father leading us to believe that “there must be something about the way or the reason why the father performs his parental chores that creates or requires the apparent numbness in the speaker, even over the distance of the years. The child is [also] vaguely but certainly aware of the ‘angers of that house,’ and â€¦ because the speaker in the poem does not know when the angers will erupt in the house, he is constantly in a state of terror that makes him speak ‘indifferently’ to the fatherâ€¦”(Gallagher) And so the “blueblack cold” may have another meaning, describing not the physical condition but the sadistic atmosphere of the house and father. The meaning behind the last two lines of Hayden’s poem; “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” remain somewhat vague, given that they close with a question rather than a definitive statement (Johnson) but they also tie in and close the “great hurt of the [author’s] recollection.” (Gallagher) All of this leads back to the fact that at a younger age, the speaker is in doubt of his father’s love; as a child he presumes that love is expressed in slightly more clear ways. It is not until the speaker has grown considerably older that he realizes that love is not always expressed so visibly, but is often expressed wordlessly and indirectly, and he is then able to find this indirect and silent love in his father’s early morning actions. Though there is still a slightly gloomy mood at the end of the poem there is also a sense of resolution and closing. (Thomson)
The speaker in the poem is a man reflecting on his boyhood and his father’s love for him. The speaker tells about his ignorance of his father’s simple love, expressed for him through his father’s early morning gestures. The poem’s tone shifts continuously throughout the poem, in the beginning the tone changes from a cold, harsh tone to a warmer, more comforting tone by line 6. Although by line 9; the poem’s tone shifts again to a more negative tenor. The bitter tone depicted in the first stanza is reflected through the “blueblack cold[ness]” of the house, the Father’s “cracked hands” and the fact that “no one has ever thanked [the father]”. By line 7; the house and “rooms were warm” and the tone has seemed to morph to a more consoling sentiment when “the cold [is] splintering, breaking”. Although the cold is gone and there is now warmth inside the house, the tone once again changes back to the bitter manner in line 9 when the “chronic angers of that house” are mentioned. (EE) The bitter tone is carried on until the end of the poem but the tone of the poem also takes on a sort of regretful spin when the poet asks in lines 13 & 14; “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
Hayden uses a great deal of symbolism in his poem, some obvious and others not so much. The very first symbol being winter, mentioned in the title of the poem; “Those Winter Sundays.” “Some use winter to suggest death, as in Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Some use it to suggest the absence of hope, as in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobeâ€¦” (Wikipedia) Winter births cold and darkness, both referred to in line 2 as the “blueblack cold”. The cold often symbolizes depression and the darkness almost always symbolizes death and destruction. Symbolism like this helps generate the negative tone the poet is trying to create. The father’s “cracked hands” symbolize labor and hard work but could also represent sickness or bad health. A final symbol in Hayden’s poem is the warmth. The warmth is possibly the only positive symbol used throughout the poem. The warmth often stands for happiness and harmony, much the opposite of the cold and darkness.
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Hayden’s poem incorporates tremendous meaning into each line of his poem, using varying tone and symbolism to help intensify the implications behind it. Delving into the very core of the meaning of the poem, behind the literal and sub-literal levels, the reader finds that what Hayden is trying to relay is that there are many different kinds of love and that saying “I love you” is not the only way to show affection but that love can be portrayed in the simplest of actions and through the subtlest of gestures in life.
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