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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?

Robert Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey in 1913 in Detroit’s Paradise Valley neighborhood. His parents separated before he was born, and his mother was not able to care for the boy on her own—he was taken in by neighbors, the Haydens. It was a difficult, even a traumatic childhood.
During the Great Depression, the young Robert Hayden joined the WPA and researched Black history and folk culture. He married and went back to school at the University of Michigan. He studied under W. H. Auden, one of his major poetic influences. Hayden taught at the University of Michigan for several years before moving to Fisk University in Nashville. His work received wide recognition, and he was the first Black American to serve as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—the role we now refer to as “Poet Laureate.” He died in 1980 at the age of 66.br> 
“Those Winter Sundays” is Hayden’s best-known poem, and has appeared in countless anthologies. In some ways it is conventional in its structure. Parts of the poem are in iambic pentameter (ten syllables per line)—one of the most common verse patterns in English poetry.  And the poem has 14 lines, suggesting the traditional sonnet form. But that’s where the conventionality stops. The poem does not stick to iambic pentameter, nor does it fall neatly into the pattern of a Shakespearean or a Petrarchan sonnet. I think the way the poem breaks with familiar structures is significant in this poem, which comes to recognize love that doesn’t appear in familiar forms.
“Sundays too my father got up early.” There is so much in that line. It tells us that this is a hard-working man, a man who doesn’t take a day off. Even on Sundays he is up early – getting dressed “in the blueblack cold.” Hayden’s coinage—"blueblack”—evokes both how early he gets up, and how cold it is.  With his “cracked” and aching hands, he builds the fires in each room. “No one ever thanked him,” the first stanza ends. That comes as a shock. We expect a contrast between the cold outside, and the warmth within—but instead we get “no one ever thanked him.” It’s cold inside as well as outside.
In the second stanza, we meet the son. He is still in bed, and listens to “the cold splintering, breaking.” Only when the rooms are warm does the father call. Even then, “slowly I would rise and dress, / fearing the chronic angers of that house.” When he comes out of his room, he speaks “indifferently” to the father.
In the last stanza, we see how, in hindsight, the son’s attitude has changed. He recognizes what his father did for the family: driving out the cold by getting up before everyone to light the fires, even polishing his son’s shoes. These little acts were “love’s austere and lonely offices”—expressions of love. The repetition of the phrase, “what did I know, what did I know,” suggests the son’s sense of regret that his child-self did not recognize or reciprocate these acts of love.
Hayden’s poem is about family love—love that is not expressed in words or embraces. This love is “austere” and even “lonely,” performed not in the midst of the family, but alone and without thanks—without interaction. But there is love nevertheless, love that has “driven out the cold.”
“Those Winter Sundays” has been described as a “heart-wrenching domestic masterpiece,” a poem that defines “unspoken love” (David Biespiel). I think its power comes from its unsentimentality. This was not an ideal home—the boy feared the “chronic angers” of the house, which, more than the cold, made him reluctant to get up in the morning. And yet, looking back, he recognizes that love was present as well.
Maybe reading and reflecting on this remarkable poem can prompt us to look back through our memories, and recognize the people who performed “love’s austere and lonely offices” for us—perhaps without ever saying a word.



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