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‘Those Winter Sundays,’ a reflection on Robert Hayden’s poem

Winter in Detroit is a miniature ice age every year. The cold usually descends in November, hardens throughout December, then persists in brutal ice until April or even May. There can be blizzards at Halloween and ice storms at Easter.

In 1913 it was hard weather even if you lived in the optimistically named Paradise Valley section of Detroit, which was booming in the first part of the 20th century. African American workers were streaming North for jobs in the automobile factories, and many of them settled in Paradise Valley.

There was music in Paradise Valley: Ethel Waters, Pearl Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald played in the bars and clubs along Adams Avenue, and in the ‘40s and ‘50s you could hear Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong play at the fabulous Paradise Theater.

But for many, the music was only a momentary consolation in the daily industrial grind of working and raising families in the largely segregated and impoverished housing near Paradise Valley. The majority of folks living there were manual laborers who worked in or around the factories. Conditions were harsh, and physical exposure to the all-enveloping cold was a painful, inescapable reality.

The poet Robert Hayden grew up in Paradise Valley and wrote one of the most famous American poems of the 20th century: “Those Winter Sundays.” It is a poem, a sonnet in fact, that captures in 14 lines the enormous struggle against the cold — both the cold of the weather, and an interior cold that freezes and fractures human relationships.

In the poem, Hayden recalls when he was a boy and his father would rise before dawn on Sunday mornings, just as he rose every other day of the week, to light the fire that was apparently the only source of heat in their home. Sunday should have been a day of rest, but the cold is indiscriminate.

Hayden remembers that his father made the fire and warmed the house with “cracked hands that ached /from labor in the weekday weather,” and that for his solitary labor, “no one ever thanked him.” Why not? The poem only tells us that as a boy Hayden lived in fear of “the chronic angers of that house.”

Probably we all know the fatigue that comes from too much work. Probably few of us know the fatigue that likely came from Hayden’s father’s work in impoverished, segregated, industrial conditions in Detroit. This is a fatigue that saps warmth from interactions with others, perhaps particularly with family members, and leaves behind anger and frustration perhaps slowly clotting into resentment. For the young Robert Hayden, the house may have been physically warm, but was nevertheless emotionally cold with the chronic anger he remembers in his father.

“Those Winter Sundays” takes some of its force from its reference to the physical reality of bitter cold. It might ring hollow to those who are unacquainted with serious cold and the way it infiltrates an unheated house or exposed body with threatening persistence. Contemporary furnaces and thermostats work wonders in holding the cold at bay, but even within the last couple years, Texans have had to confront the impersonal brutality of the cold when the furnace fails.

I’ve had mild frostbite twice, once in high school and once during an operation when deployed with the Marine Corps. Neither time was it very serious, but both times it set in with an accompanying feeling of despair that I was losing something I might not get back. The subsequent rewarming of the exposed limbs is far more painful than the initial exposure to the cold.

Early in the poem, Hayden’s portrait of domestic life encourages us to see the physical cold as a metaphor for the emotional state within the home. In this case, his father’s loving efforts to warm the house physically were lost in translation to his young son. He warmed his son’s body physically, but his chronic anger left a chill in every room.

There is a turn in the final lines of the sonnet, however, that helps us read the whole poem with the benefit of a mature Hayden’s perspective. Hayden asks, “what did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” It is as if the poet Hayden has finally restored the warmth and circulation that had frozen in his childhood limbs. He realizes that his father’s efforts at heating the house were indeed acts of selfless love. And though his father, toiling under the pressures of his workaday life, could not warm his son emotionally, he toiled the way that he could, however austere and lonely it was, to provide the warmth that he could.

“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?

Reprinted from Collected Poems by Robert Hayden. Copyright © 1985 by Erma Hayden. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


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