Sunday, February 26, 2017

Robert Hayden: Those Winter Sundays

Sometimes while reading a poem, a stanza or even a line may resurrect memories long forgotten or at least not recalled in many years.  This is what happened yesterday when I read Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays."   According to the brief bio note with the poem, Hayden was born in Detroit.  I was born and raised in Chicago, so my winter mornings were much like Hayden's in Detroit. 

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze.  No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

I remember my dad getting up in those cold, dark winter mornings and going down into the basement to remove the cinders and shovel coal into the furnace.  I too never said anything about it for I just took it as a part of living and never considered what it meant, until I read this poem.  Hayden says so little, yet suggests so much in this brief poem.

"No one ever thanked him."

"fearing the chronic angers of that house."

"Speaking indifferently to him,"

And of course, the last two lines:

"What did I know, what did I know
  of love's austere and lonely offices?"

How much regret, how much regret is contained  within those fourteen words?


  1. nice poem: we had an electric furnace, but i remember the cold in eastern Washington... the howling winds blowing tumbleweeds through town... snowing here this morning... AGAIN... he said with clenched teeth... only a couple of inches so far; hope we don't lose power again...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      I always felt that Feb. was the worst month of the winter. It always seemed to be the coldest, although that might have been my imagination. I know what he means by "blueblack cold."

  2. "love's austere and lonely offices" raining now and warmer... my mind runs the gamut, from Juliet to Lady MacBeth; maybe Hayden really means duty as much as love, the latter being such a timetorn and ragged theme, at best... what percentage of love is habit...? and does it matter...? questions for a young poet, not an old curmudgeon, so hush, mudpuddle...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      I'm now reading Durrell's Alexandria Quarter which explores the many varieties of love--and there are many in the AQ.

      Was the father doing it out of love or duty? That would depend, I think, on the father's perception. It could be both: a duty that he does because he cares for his family. Polishing the shoes, I believe, suggests something more than just duty.

  3. I really enjoyed your post.

    Be it poetry or other types of stimuli, it is so interesting how are memories are triggered.

    There is indeed a lot those fourteen words. I wish that I could go back, even for a few minutes, knowing what I know now.

    1. Brian,

      Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed the poem. I'm always surprised at what can resurrect memories from long ago.

      I, too, wish I could go back. Frost's poem, the Road Not Taken, is somehow very pertinent here.

  4. Fred, the poem also sends me back to the past in western Pennsylvania -- coal furnace, hard-working father, bone-chilling cold -- and even though there is a heaviness to the poem (i.e., the "chronic angers," about which I prefer to forget), the one snapshot -- "polished my good shoes" -- reminds me of our Sunday morning ritual: getting dressed in our best clothes and going to church. I wonder now, perhaps like you, if my memories are accurate. Nevertheless, the poem has long been a favorite of mine, and I thank you for sharing it. I very much needed a time-travel experience.

    1. R.T.,

      the accuracy of memories? Open-ended topic. The accuracy of memories is under attack, but usually by those who want memory to be inaccurate, defense attorneys for example. There's lots of evidence suggesting that memories aren't that accurate, but has anyone really tested how accurate our memories are?

    2. Fred, I imagine such a test would be impossible; short-term memory is testable but long-term (lifetime) memory seems to me to be untestable. So, we have only individual perspectives (subjective at best) for our own memories. I'm surprised how much I remember and how much I have forgotten in my near-dotage. I recall the oddest things, quite out of the blue, and catalysts (like the poem above) are remarkable triggers for surprises. Thanks for sending me back to the cold Sunday mornings in the coal fields, riverside steel mills, and snow-covered hills of western Pennsylvania

    3. there's quite a lot of work being done re memories in various parts of the world; see, for instance, "The Self Illusion" by Bruce Hood... there's a lot more info on Google...

    4. R.T.

      I agree. What is being substituted are artificial lab experiments that can't in any way match the complex situation in which real memories are created.

      Poetry is very effective in recalling memories. I wonder if anyone is researching that.

    5. Muddpuddle,

      the self-illusion. Ah yes. . . And what is it that is being deluded into thinking it's a coherent unity. I keep asking that question and nobody will answer it.

  5. my son says, "It is what it is..."

  6. Mudpuddle,

    Very Illuminating, I'm sure. Think I've heard that before.

    How old is your son?