Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden
Stanza 3 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Speaking indifferently to him,
- Hmm. Maybe the speaker (though he was just a tyke at the time) has something to do with those angers.
- In this line, we learn that he he speaks “indifferently” to his good ol’ dad. We could even say that he’s “cold” to his dad—cold as an icy winter morning. The speaker is acting like the weather to his poor ol’ dad. Not cool.
- But why? Why isn't he warmer to dear daddy? It probably has something to do with that fear from line 9. Maybe our speaker keeps his distance from his old man because they have a tense, angry relationship—or at least they did.
who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well.
- Now, the all-grown-up speaker acknowledges what the young speaker couldn’t. He finally gets that despite the “chronic angers” of his home, his dad had “driven out the cold” and “polished [his] good shoes.” And you know what? That was kind of nice of the guy.
- See, when he was just a little kiddo, our speaker couldn’t appreciate these behaviors as gestures of love. All he could feel was the anger of the household. But now that he's a grown-up (and who knows—maybe he has kids of his own), he understands that even when family members are emotionally distant, that doesn't mean there's not love there.
- We might have an “actions speak louder than words” sort of thing going on here. The speaker, as a boy, doesn’t seem to recognize that lighting fires in the fireplaces and polishing the good Sunday church shoes is a kind of love. But the important thing is that the present-day speaker realizes it. He's finally learned his lesson.
What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?
- Are you getting all teared up at these lines? Shmoop's getting all misty-eyed over here. The repetition in line 13—“What did I know, what did I know”—just breaks our little hearts. It’s like the speaker is crying haltingly, or catching his breath in these lines, as he realizes that he knew nothing back then when he was a kid.
- This is the moment the poem has been building toward, this moment of recognition that the adult speaker knows so much more about his father, and his father’s love, than he did as a child.
- The speaker understands a lot more about love now, but is it too late? Can he tell his father that he now knows that lighting fires at the crack of dawn is love in action? We can’t say for sure, but this repetition in line 13, the resigned heartbreak, makes us think that the speaker’s dad isn’t around. The knowledge, it seems to us, has come too late.
- Let's take a quick vocab tour, shall we? Austere means harsh and severe and disciplined. And the word “office” has more meanings than you might think—an office can be a workplace (duh), but it has other meanings, too. It can mean an official position or post (as in “the office of the president”). It can mean a duty or obligation. It can mean a type of service or worship in the Christian Church.
- So, with all these possible meanings in mind, we see that there are approximately a billion ways to interpret the last line of the poem.
- The speaker asks a rhetorical question: when he was a child, what did he understand about love? And, of course, the speaker, just by asking this question, implies that its answer is diddley squat. He was a dumb kid, who didn’t understand his dad’s love.
- But built into the final phrase of the poem—“love’s austere and lonely offices”—is an incredibly complex view of parental love.
- What are we getting at? Well, through the word “office,” love is presented as a duty, as a form of worship, as a responsibility, as an official job. It can be all those things at once.
- Plus, love is “austere,” or harsh, and as “lonely” as waking at crack of dawn to light the fires for your sleeping family.
- What the grown-up speaker understands now is that love is not all hearts and kisses and pats on the head from dad, but that love is waking up in the blueblack cold and working every day of the week to provide for your family, even if they don't say thank you.
- And, one final note: we've reached the end of the poem, and what do we notice? It's got fourteen lines.
- Now that might not seem significant, until you remember that sonnets have fourteen lines.
- Hmmm. Okay, so "Those Winter Sundays" is not a traditional sonnet in any way. It has no rhyme scheme, no regular meter, no nada. But, like the most traditional sonnets you can think of, “Those Winter Sundays” is about love. And it does have that turn, or volta at the end—when we realize that this is definitely a guy looking back at his childhood and regretting that he didn't see how much his dear old dad loved him.
- With its sonnet-ness in mind, we feel pretty comfortable saying that, in the end, “Those Winter Sundays” is a belated child-to-father love poem that acknowledges the complexity of this relationship.
- Doesn’t the make you wish that you could reach out and hug your dad and thank him for all he’s done for you? If he’s around, wrap him up in a big ol’ bear hug, please. Then get back to Shmooping.