Robert Hayden's

A Formalist Response

Robert Hayden revisits the actions of his youth in his poem “Those Winter Sundays.”  The poem is a recollection of what his father did as a message of love and how he reacted towards it.  The purpose of the poem is to emphasize the struggle his father went to in order to keep him comfortable and express love, and then display the sorrow of how ungrateful he seemed to be towards all of it.

Robert Hayden

The poem begins by Hayden stating “Sundays too my father got up early” (lines 1-2).  The word “Sunday” has immediate connotations of rest and relaxation, yet Hayden drops an instant surge of irony into the opening by stating his father didn’t take advantage of that.  This instantly shows the type of person Hayden’s father was before Hayden even has the chance of explaining the situation.  The poem goes on to describe how his father would wake up and start a fire every morning to heat the house.  This makes the first sentence set the tone even bolder, showing the devotion that Hayden’s father had. 

Hayden makes use of vivid imagery to depict the actions his father conducted in order to heat the house.  The images tie together to enforce how difficult the actions were for his father, showing them as painful tasks that he went ahead and did.  Immediately, Hayden mentions how his father wakes up and puts on his clothes in “blueblack cold” (line 2).  The use of the adjective “blueblack” describing the temperature is a way the text is used to achieve a specific emotion.  “Blueblack” embodies painful connotation since the colors mentioned are similar to that of the effects of frostbite.  Using the term “blueblack”, Hayden achieves his purpose of depicting the pain that his father instantly woke up to every time he started his task of helping the family.  The imagery is a tool to evoke emotion and does so very well within the poetry, due to the emphasis the adjective adds because it is not typically associated with “cold”. 

His father’s “cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather” (lines 3-4) are mentioned next, emphasizing that his father worked hard throughout the week, and also on his days off.  The fact that his hands are cracked adds another element into the commitments his father made for his families comfort, showing that he works hard to support them throughout the week.  The cracked hands are evidence that Hayden’s father has a physical labor job, and works strenuously.  Also, the poem mentions that his father’s hands still ached on Sunday from his weekday job, implying that his work was so difficult during the week that they still hurt on his days off.  This further emphasizes the work that his father puts forth.  Hayden then mentions how these actions caused “banked fires [to] blaze.” (line 5).  The use of the term “blaze” in the text, counteracts with the terms associated with the cold mentioned previously to show the strength of his father’s love for the family.  Despite all of the negatives, a warm sense resonates throughout the bitterness and pain. 

The irony of all of this is exemplified after the depiction of his father’s triumph when Hayden solemnly states “No one ever thanked him” (line 5).  This use of irony right after the explanation of his father’s sacrifice for his family gives the reader Hayden’s objective unit idea he emphasized within the poem.  To list what his father should have been thanked for, then list how there was no gratitude sent his way by the family, depicts a sense of regret.  It shows that Hayden can now see what he wasn’t able to see then, and look on it in a different matter, that someone should have actually said something.  The use of irony is to show that Hayden took his father for granted.  

Throughout the poem, the kind actions that Hayden’s father performed are highlighted, displaying the strength and good deeds that the man performed.  His father would wake him up in his room once everything was warm (line 7).  This action goes back to the previous mentioning of his father waking up and facing the cold, and uses organic unity to state that his father didn’t want the same thing to happen to him.  There is also irony in the sense that Hayden mentions how he slowly would wake up to put on clothes (line 8) whereas his father woke up early in order to give him comfort.  This exchange demonstrates that Hayden’s father put Hayden before himself, and the contrast adds to the unit idea that’s presented, that Hayden was overall ungrateful at the time.  Hayden specifically mentioning that he woke up slowly almost pinpoints to his regret, because he didn’t wake up earlier to help his father with heating the house. 

Hayden depicts his sorrow when he states that he spoke “indifferently to him” (line 10) even though his father had “driven out the cold and polished my [his] good shoes” (line 11).  It lists a negative attitude on Hayden’s part, even though his father had presented such kindness to him.  Once again, irony is used to bring forth the overall idea that ties the poem together, that Hayden’s father cared so much and that Hayden himself seemingly cared so little.  The idea of Hayden speaking “indifferently” shows that it was worse than Hayden just not caring, but it was the fact that Hayden was also somewhat abusive to someone who showed him such compassion.  This makes the reader sympathize even more with the father and view Hayden as negative in his youth.  Hayden’s brutal honesty adds to the reoccurring idea presented that Hayden took his father for granted, but also shows that now he realizes how he acted even though he didn’t at the time.  By listing his own negative action and then listing his father’s positive actions, Hayden shows that he did this without really realizing the sacrifices his father made at the time.

Those Winter Sundays

At the end of the poem Hayden lists his own apology by stating the phrase “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” (line 13).   This is a personal confession of Hayden, stating that he didn’t realize what was going on at the time.  The repetition of “What did I know, what did I know” shows complete sorrow, as he examines his mindset in disbelief. 

The piece speaks straightforward, depicting the harsh works conducted by Hayden’s father, then listing how the kindness was directed towards Hayden, then how Hayden didn’t see the kindness but regrets that he was unable to.  Redemption is achieved for Hayden’s actions in the text, because it seems to haunt him and he shows obvious signs of regret.  By Hayden listing vivid detail within the text, he is showing that he completely understands what his father went through now that he looks back on it.  Because he is able to depict almost a step by step account, shows that he now sees it as important, and the signs of regret force the achieved content to be that of Hayden’s sorrows and current appreciation for what his father had done.  When one reads “Those Winter Sundays”, they are able to sympathize with Hayden because of his expression of sorrow, and end up feeling sympathetic for him as well.  One understands that Hayden’s obliviousness is due to his youth and that he is older and it is only now that he realizes this.  Due to the fact that it seems too late for Hayden to show his gratitude for his father’s actions, the redemption is found within the piece, since Hayden shows that he is fully aware of what happened.