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Those Winter Sundays — Poem Analysis

This is a beautifully simple poem on the surface: a man remembers his childhood as a boy, realising that he didn’t appreciate everything his father did for him. The father seemed cold and distant, but all his suffering and difficult actions were a show of love.

Yet, when we delve deeper, more complex questions arise. Robert Hayden had a difficult childhood, raised in a foster home that was fraught with tension and anger — could it be instead that he is looking back on the lack of love in his home? Perhaps, instead, it is about the way in which providing for a child in terms of money, heating, food and clothes is not a substitute for true parental love.

This analysis is tailored towards GCSE and A Level students on the following exam boards: CIE / Cambridge, Edexcel, WJEC, OCR, CCEA, AQA. However, it’s also useful for anyone studying the poem at all higher levels.


Thanks for reading! If you find this resource useful, you can take a look at the full CIE Cambridge Poetry course here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/p/cie-igcse-poetry


Those Winter Sundays

Robert Hayden

“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.”

(Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright)

VOCABULARY

Blueblack — a mixture of a blue and black colour

Austere — harsh, serious, strict, emotionally cold, no comfort or luxury.

Chronic — something that happens all the time, can relate to pain or suffering

Indifferently — not caring or being emotional about something, neither good or bad.

STORY/SUMMARY

Stanza 1: The speaker’s father woke up early on cold Sunday mornings. The father is a physical labourer as he works outside and has sore hands. The persona remarks that nobody was grateful for his effort.

Stanza 2: The persona would hear his father wake up and as the father woke up he would heat the house for the speaker and presumably the rest of the family. The persona also feels the constant pain his father is in, and the house seems to reflect this pain.

Stanza 3: The persona speaks unemotionally to the father, despite the fact that the father put so much effort in to get the house warm and also polished the boy’s shoes. He says he didn’t understand at the time that the father’s behaviour was an act of love because he seemed cold and distant.

SPEAKER / VOICE

  • The speaker is a man reflecting on his past and his apathy toward his father when the speaker was a child.
  • reflective tone of voice, looking back, trying to make sense of all that was going on, all that had happened. Over a period of time, probably years, the speaker gains some perspective on the role of his father, but there are still loose ends to tie up.
  • 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. Or alternatively, perhaps he is reflecting on how his father providing for him in terms of comforts was not a true substitute for a deeper, loving bond of friendship and respect.
  • Our lack of knowledge of the speaker is part of what makes the poem speak to so many people — we can all visualise ourselves in the speaker’s position, as a child who doesn’t understand his/her parents. Many people respond to this poem because they see themselves in it.

LANGUAGE FEATURES

Hayden uses the word “father” instead of Papa, Daddy or Dad, father being a more formal it also ties in with the idea of a selfless Christian father figure, suffering for the sake of others.

Alliteration -”weekday weather” -to create a safe, warm environment for his child and to put a roof over his head.

Dissonance/Cacophony -”banked fires” and makes them “blaze” to create a comfortable environment for his son.

Harsh consonant sounds -”cold,” “cracked,” and “ached” to evoke the harshness of the speaker’s father’s life.

In Line 9 Hayden uses metonymy by using “the house” to represent the people in it.

Assonance — the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line the sound of /o/ in “put his clothes on in the blue black cold” > ‘clothes’ and ‘cold’ create a connecting sound — this underscores the harsh environment as we realise it is very unpleasant for the father to dress in those conditions.

‘Cracked hands’ — the assonance underscores the visual image and creates a sticking, painful sound that helps us to imagine the father’s pain/suffering.

Metaphor — It’s a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between the objects different in nature. For example, “I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.” Here, the poet compares cold with a solidobject that can splinter and break.

Imagery is used to make the reader realise things involving their five senses. For example, “And put his clothes on in the blue black cold” and “Then with cracked hands that ached” and “and polished my good shoes as well.” are both examples visual imagery. The poet uses imagery to show the chilling, sullen aura of their home and the cruel lifestyle that the father had to go through. ‘Polished my good shoes’ suggests that the father worked hard to make sure the boy looked nice and had nice clothes to wear — he’s paid for good shoes and he’s the one who spends time polishing them to make sure they shine. In a way, the attention he gives to the shoes could be an indirect act of love towards the boy, the continuous verb ‘polishing’ demonstrates in a metaphorical sense the way in which the father nurtures his relationship with the boy by showing these small acts of kindness and love, however at the time these acts are unappreciated and the boy is not perceptive enough to understand that this is how his father shows love.

Synesthesia — The poet has used this device in the second line. For example, “And put his clothes on in the blue black cold.” He uses color to describe a feeling — the cold is turning his skin blue / the colour of a bruise (signifies pain) / the colour of the morning as it starts to turn light.

STRUCTURE/FORM

  • No rhyme scheme > the poem is not musical, but practical — like the father and the type of atmosphere that the speaker grew up in.
  • Some lines are iambic, others a mix of iambic.

The poem follows iambic pentameter such as, “and put his clothes on in the blueblack”- ‘poets use iambic pentameter to make an impact on the reader by imitating natural speech.

  • Open form structure with no set stanza length or line length > roughly irregular with a 4–5–4 line stanza structure. Perhaps the semi-regularity demonstrates the way in which the father tried to impose some kind of order on his family’s life through his work and positive gestures.
  • Split into 3 stanzas.
  • Each stanza contributes to evoking different emotions and builds to support the underlying theme.
  • Short sentences > ‘No one ever thanked him.’ — this is very abrupt and sudden, similar to the speaker’s sudden realisation of how harshly he himself treated his father by not demonstrating gratitude or helping him in any way.
  • Tension > there is an underlying feeling of tension created in the line ‘the sullen angers of the house’, we assume that the ‘angers of the house’ shows tension between family members

CONTEXT

  • Sunday > significant for its religious implication.
  • In Christian tradition, Christ died on the cross to save the souls of mankind. This was his obligation, his duty in life for the benefit of his “children.” The father in the poem is likened to Christ as a figure who suffers a lot for the benefit of his family. > ‘martyr
  • The words ‘labour’ and ‘weekday weather’ suggest that the family is from a working class background with low income, hence the difficulty that the father has to endure in terms of working to support his family and keeping the house running.
  • Hayden is an African American poet, and he wrote this poem in 1962, but he is looking back on his childhood in the 1920s/1930s, growing up in a ghetto in Detroit.
  • The poem could be an extract from a diary, told to someone close, perhaps another family member of a future generation.
  • Hayden had a difficult childhood, his parents separated before birth and he was fostered by his neighbours. However, the foster parents also had difficulties and his own biological mother also competed for his affections — he often experienced fights and beatings break out, as well as suffering from sight problems and being bullied at school.

THEMES

  • Regret
  • Loneliness
  • Parental love
  • Selflessness
  • Reciprocity
  • Childhood
  • Maturity
  • Duty
  • Parental sacrifice
  • The Nature of Love
  • Reflection

Thanks for reading! If you find this resource useful, you can take a look at the full CIE Cambridge Poetry course here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/p/cie-igcse-poetry


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