Poetry Review, Robert Hayden, Those Winter Sundays

15 Apr

Those Winter Sundays is one of those poems that I feel like I grew up with.  I read it at least as early as Junior High and I could easily relate to it.  I came from a family that had a woodstove, so it was normal for us to bank the stove and basically have the heat off.  In the morning the heat would be restarted (by my father, or sometimes my mother) and the house would heat up again.

“Sundays too my father got up early–”  so basically the writer’s father never got a day to sleep in, even on Sunday, the traditional day of rest, to “put his clothes on in the blueblack cold.”  I love the word blueblack, because it makes me think of cold so powerful it hurts like a bruise (and honestly, if you’ve ever been in a northern winter it really can), but also gives the sense of the total darkness that the father wakes up in–not an inviting morning.

“then with cracked hands that ached/from labor in the weekday weather made/banked fires blaze.”  I’m imagining the father is a farmer, though he could be anything I suppose–but in any case the father works with his hands, and his aching worn hands are making fire for his family.  “No one ever thanked him.”  That last line has a tinge of regret, but at the time the father probably wasn’t thanked because he always did this–to his children this is part of the order of things.  People usually get thanked for doing something out of the ordinary, not for performing the ordinary—even though the second is much more valuable.

“I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.”  Because the house is getting warm, the sound of chopping wood, but also there’s a splintering and breaking sound to ice melting and falling as well.  To this child, the sound is almost magical.

“When the rooms were warm, he’d call/and slowly I would rise and dress/fearing the chronic angers of that house.”  I think “house” is literal here–so he’s getting out of bed and dressing slowly because he was not wanting to experience the painful cold and discomfort that the house naturally had.  He’s giving time for things to get even warmer.

“Speaking indifferently to him,/who had driven out the cold/and polished my good shoes as well.”  Here’s where there’s a bit of guilt, though there’s no indication that he’s purposely ungrateful.

“What did I know, what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely offices?”  It’s his ignorance that makes him not see the love he’s surrounded by.   Actually, his father is a symbol of  what love looks like, because the father’s goal is to make the world a little bit warmer for his son, taking away a little of the world’s hardness and cold.  Also it’s clear that the father wasn’t doing this to get any kind of gratitude either, he was doing this selflessly, out of love.

It’s a lovely image, and I wonder–in what ways can we take the cold away for others?  How can we thank those who did the same for us?

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