The Loneliest Office: Love and Sacrifice in “Those Winter Sundays”
Written for my English 102 class on November 1, 2017, I had to pick a poem we had discussed in class and identify two to three poetic elements that support a theme. I chose “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. I chose the poem because I liked its unique quasi-sonnet structure as well as the contrast of sounds of words in various lines; I felt like I had a lot of material to discuss. Poetry was extremely foreign to me before we started this unit, but I had a lot of fun pulling things out of poems to discuss, and this essay is really a culmination of my efforts. It shows all I learned. I made a 99 on this essay. My instructor said she enjoyed it and it was well-written, but that she would have preferred clear topic sentences at the beginning of each paragraph. (My topic sentences were not always the first sentence of each paragraph.) The essay was written in MLA 8 format complete with in-text citations and a Works Cited page.
Robert Hayden’s poem, “Those Winter Sundays,” paints a picture of a father who withstands rigid conditions so his family can have easier lives. Hayden uses diction and syntax, sound, and poetic form to reveal themes of love and sacrifice while divulging his childhood indifference and later appreciation for his foster father.
The phrases “blueblack cold” (Hayden 1.2), “cracked hands that ached” (1.3), “cold splintering, breaking” (2.6), and “chronic angers of that house” (2.9) have negative connotations. These phrases contain words that are both effectively descriptive and harsh. By reading these words, the reader can almost feel what Hayden’s father felt when he got out of bed on Sundays. Yet, the poem begins, “Sundays too my father got up early” (1.1). The word “too” is carefully placed and leads the reader to assume that his father endured these conditions daily. In this way, Hayden’s diction and syntax reveal the gravity of the father’s sacrifices and the harsh conditions his father endured for his family’s comfort.
These sacrifices and harsh conditions are reinforced in sound by way of consonance and alliteration. Consonance is present in the hard sounds repeated in the words “cracked” and “ached,” and alliteration is present in the words “banked” and “blaze” in the phrase “with cracked hands that ached /…made / banked fires blaze” (Hayden 1.3-5). These hard sounds are indicative of the harsh conditions Hayden’s father faced and make the sentence that follows almost shocking: “No one ever thanked him” (1.5). Words in the phrases “rooms were warm” (2.7) and “rise and dress” (2.8) used in lines describing Hayden’s own actions have softer consonant sounds that contrast the harder consonant sounds in the words used to describe his father’s actions. The intent is clear: Hayden had a more comfortable childhood because of the discomfort his father put himself through for his family.
“Those Winter Sundays” comes from Hayden’s childhood and is about the love exhibited by his foster father (Kenney). In the last two lines Hayden asks, “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices” (Hayden 3.13-14)? This rhetorical question implies that Hayden understands and appreciates the sacrifices his foster father made for him out of love. In essence, “Those Winter Sundays” is a poem about love. At fourteen lines, “Those Winter Sundays” can be viewed as an unconventional sonnet. It lacks the rhythm and meter of a sonnet, and is about the love of a parent rather than a romantic interest. Nonetheless, its quasi-sonnet structure fortifies a theme of love.
Themes of love and sacrifice are apparent in the self-reflecting poem, “Those Winter Sundays.” Although it is implied Hayden never thanked his foster father as a child, the poem’s diction and syntax, sound, and structure reveal to readers that as an adult, Hayden knew and appreciated how much his foster father did for him and their family.
Hayden, Robert. “Those Winter Sundays.” Arguing About Literature, edited by John Schilb and John Gifford, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. p. 318.
Kenney, W.P. “The Poetry of Hayden.” Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition, Salem Press, December 2008, www.ezp.gvltec.edu:2087/ehost/detail/detail?vid=7&sid=5d94c14b-f79a-47d2-87a4-6fa8d7d71c93%40sessionmgr103&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=103331AFR12639640000181&db=lfh.