Even though “Those Winter Sundays” doesn’t rhyme or have a regular meter, it is still a really sound-y poem. (That's really just our way of saying that it sounds cool.)
In phrases like “blueblack” and “banked fires blaze,” the poem alliterates (or repeats the beginning sounds of words) on a lot of harsh sounds, particularly on the letter B. When you read the poem out loud (or listen to Hayden reading it), the beginning of the poem sounds super severe. You can almost feel yourself out there in the cold with the speaker’s father.
There’s also another kind of repetition in the poem—the repetition of an entire phrase. Line 13 is just a repetition of the same phrase twice: “What did I know, what did I know.” Heartbreaking, don't you think?
See, early on in the poem, we were out there in the harsh cold with the speaker’s father; now, we’re listening to the speaker sobbing out his words, as if he’s stumbling over his feelings, trying to catch his breath as he explains what he’s learned. Hayden makes so much meaning out of this one little repetition—it’s really the hinge of the poem’s emotions.
Now, excuse us while we go find ourselves some tissues.
As far as titles go, “Those Winter Sundays” feels a bit old and worn to us. It’s like the speaker is looking back on those dark, chilly Sundays, many moons ago, when he was just a sad wee lad.
There's also a definite sense of repetition here. There wasn’t just one cold winter Sunday that the speaker and his family lived though. There were probably hundreds of them. And they were all equally wintry.
And those winter Sundays don’t exactly seem joyous. In fact, they sound like a huge drag. We feel like the speaker says the title with a big sigh. Those winter Sundays may have been important to the speaker, but not because they were filled with hot cocoa and cheery times by the fire. Just the opposite is true, actually. He remembers them for their coldness and their quiet.
The speaker of “Those Winter Sundays” speaks to us from the present, but tells us about his childhood, which was cold. Cold, cold, cold. Based on the speaker’s description, we imagine him and his family living in a big, drafty, ramshackle-y old house, with lots of fireplaces. The air is cold, his relationship with his father is cold, and we can almost see the frost forming on the windowsills of his childhood. Brrrr.
Our speaker in “Those Winter Sundays” is an adult who looks back on his childhood relationship with his father. In some ways, it’s almost like our speaker is split in two; he’s both the child who fears his father and the adult who looks back upon his pops with love, respect, and understanding. It’s clear that the speaker has matured a lot since his childhood, and he can now recognize his father’s labor in and outside of the home as a form of love.
These basic facts aside, we don’t know much about the speaker—we don’t even know if the speaker is male or female (though we’ve been referring to the speaker as “him” throughout just to make it easier on everyone). We don’t know if the speaker has brown hair or blonde hair. We don’t know if the speaker is short or tall. We don’t know if the speaker likes baseball cards or ballet dancing or painting or bug-collecting.
And our lack of knowledge about the speaker is part of what makes the poem speak to so many people—we can all envision ourselves in the speaker’s position, as a child who doesn’t understand his/her parents. So many people respond so strongly to this poem because they see themselves in it, which might be a little harder to do if we knew that the speaker only wore hot pink leggings, or that the speaker’s face was covered in freckles.
“Those Winter Sundays” isn’t too thorny as long as you have a dictionary (or your good pals at Shmoop) handy for those multi-meaning'd words. But don’t let the poem’s short length fool you either; there are some really interesting subtleties going on in Hayden’s work that might not be obvious in your first (or second or third) reading.
It was really important to Robert Hayden that he not be judged, or even interpreted, through the lens of his skin color. He didn’t want to be known as an African-American poet; he wanted to be known as an American poet. “Those Winter Sundays,” like many of Hayden’s poems, transcends race. The family is this poem could be any family anywhere—any family with chronic angers, that is.
If you want to check out more of Hayden’s poetry in this vein, check out Hayden's “Monet’s Water Lilies.” It’s all about the common human experiences of tragedy and war and art. Deep stuff comes in small, Hayden-wrapped packages, we guess.
“Those Winter Sundays” fills the most basic qualification for a sonnet: it has fourteen lines. Other than that, it’s not very sonnet-ish. The poem doesn’t rhyme and it’s not written in regular iambic pentameter.
We mean, sure, the poem begins with two ten-syllable lines:
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
but if you scan them (as we’ve done above), you realize that the first line has no metrical pattern, while the second line is in perfect iambic pentameter. And then if you keep reading, you discover that the third line isn’t even close to being ten syllables long and the rhythm is more than a little wonky:
then with cracked hands that ached
This line follows no metrical pattern whatsoever. It keeps changing its M.O. in every line.
At this point, we’re ready to wave goodbye to the land of regular meter. If you gave “Those Winter Sundays” to your pal Shakespeare (sonnet writer-extraordinaire), he might not recognize it as a sonnet at all. That’s how un-sonnet-y this sonnet is.
And yet. And yet! “Those Winter Sundays” is a poem about love. And what are traditional sonnets about? Did someone say love? Yup, that’s right: sonnets are usually about good ol' ooey gooey, hearts and flowers L-O-V-E love.
Even though Hayden’s poem isn’t about romantic love (as so many sonnets are) it is about deep and abiding love—the love that a father has for his children, and the love that children have for their parents. “Those Winter Sundays” isn’t filled with hugs and kisses, but that doesn’t make it any less a love poem.
We also think that the secret sonnet-ness of the poem’s form connects up with its content. Just as the speaker doesn’t understand the nature of his father’s love until he’s grown, we don’t understand the poem’s form to be a sonnet until we finish it (and realize in retrospect that it has fourteen lines). So there's a delayed, or belated, recognition of love (and its many forms) for both the speaker and for us, the readers.
Neat, isn’t it? Robert Hayden really knew what he was doing.
“Those Winter Sundays” is very concerned with the temperature. First it’s cold. Like, really, really, really cold. Then, fires are lit! It’s warm. Super warm. So why all this focus on the temperature? Well, the temperature outside and inside the house reflects on the speaker’s relationship with his father. In other words, the temperature is a symbol or representation of the speaker’s inner feelings and relationships. The weather is cold, and hey, the young speaker’s relationship with his father is indifferent and (emotionally) cold. Whaddya know?
The final lines of the poem, “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” really pack a punch. They’re so sad, so remorseful, so full of regret and the kind of understanding that comes with age. But they get even more powerful when you consult your handy-dandy dictionary and look up the word “office.” Remember, Shmoopers, the dictionary is your friend.
“Those Winter Sundays” is about as un-sexy as poems get.