Those Winter Sundays

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Those Winter Sundays

Robert Hayden 1962

Author Biography

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

Robert Hayden possessed amazing skill with Ianguage and the structure of the poem. Though he is perhaps best known for his poems that explore and express the African-American experience, from the days of slavery, to the Civil War, to that of his own time, poems like “Middle Passage,” or “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” he also wrote shorter, arguably more lyric poems that capture personal or religious moments. “Those Winter Sundays,” a poem about a son remembering his father, is an excellent example of one of these shorter poems as it displays Hayden’s incredible control of language and intricate understanding of human experience. It is clear that there was distance between them and little communication or even warmth. It is discovered though, in recollection, that love actually was present. It was just communicated subtly in the father’s effort, specifically by building fires in the early morning that “dr[ove] out the cold.” The poem seems to be a lament of the fact that the son, who at the time could not perceive such subtle expressions of love, never returned them. Though subjects and speakers of poems do not necessarily correlate with the poet who writes them, it is interesting to note that Hayden was not actually raised by his real mother and father, but by their neighbors to whom he was given at the age of eighteen months.

Author Biography

Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey in 1913 in the ghetto neighborhood of “Paradise Valley” in Detroit, Michigan. When his mother Gladys Ruth Finn Sheffey left her husband, Asa Sheffey, to move to New York, she gave her eighteen-month-old baby to her neighbors William and Sue Ellen Hayden, who rechristened the boy Robert Hayden. Hayden attended Detroit City College (now Wayne State University) and the University of Michigan, where he studied with poet W. H. Auden. As a student Hayden read and admired the works of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, especially Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Orrick Johns. He also studied the works of other renowned poets of the period, including Carl Sandburg and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Some of Hayden’s most famous poems appear in his first three collections: Heart-Shape in the Dust(1940), The Lion and the Archer(1948), and Figure of Time: Poems(1955). In 1943 he became a member of the Baha’i religion and adopted their belief in the unity of all religions and worldwide brotherhood. Because of his ideology, he rejected racial classification of his work, declaring himself an American poet rather than a black poet at considerable cost to his popularity. After graduating from college in 1944, Hayden embarked on an academic career; he considered himself “a poet who teaches in order to earn a living so that he can write a poem or two now and then.” Hayden taught English at Fisk University in Tennessee for over twenty years and then ended his career at the University of Michigan. In 1976 Hayden was appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. He was the first black writer to hold this position—a fact that helped confirm his stature in American literature. He died in 1980.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

Poem Summary

Lines 1-2

The poem begins with a very simple line that nonetheless establishes the subject and the tone of what will follow. The title has already suggested the quiet cold of “winter Sundays” and this first line adds to it the notion of the early morning. The speaker’s father is also introduced which leads one to believe that he will figure centrally in the poem. The simple action of the man getting up and dressing is sharpened as an image by the use of the interesting and striking adjective “blueblack,” which describes a darkness that will soon be contrasted by the image of fire. This beginning might also be seen to suggest something of the father’s character as well, as he is up before daybreak, and is the one to confront the cold darkness of the home.

Lines 3-5

The father’s effort and suffering are then focused upon. His hands, a particularly human reference, are dry and pained from weekday work. Yet this is not enough to keep him from the necessary task of making a fire. The element of self-sacrifice is clear in this description as the man disregards his own pain to warm and light the home for his family. The first stanza comes to a close with a quiet but surprising admission: “no one ever thanked him.” This addition seems to further the implied isolation of the father as we learn that his suffering and effort go unacknowledged by the others. This last line also adds the element of lament or regret on the part of the speaker to the poem as it shifts from the father to the son and anonymous others.

This first stanza also serves as an excellent example of Hayden’s meticulous skill with language. Notice the sounds that he compiles as he tells the beginning of this simple story. He first establishes the cold dark with “blueblack.” Then, consistent with the sound of a hard “c,” he adds the element of pain: “cracked hands that ached.” When certain consonant sounds repeat in close proximity it is called consonance and its use here is part of what holds the stanza together. The sounds are very subtle, but as each new hard “c” is uttered, it evokes some recollection of those that came before. So as one continues through the first stanza and hears “weekday,” “banked,” and “thanked,” the poem coheres almost without notice. It could also be argued that this hard “c” was chosen to resemble the sound of a fire just starting, the cracking and popping of the dry wood. Finally, Hayden uses alliteration, the repetition of words beginning with the same consonant sound, with “weekday weather” and “banked fires blazed” to add to the smoothness of the lines and their sound.

Line 6

Here, as the focus shifts to the speaker’s role in this Sunday morning experience, the consonance continues. Though it is described as the speaker hearing the “cold splintering, breaking,” the sounds continue to carry the connotation and sound of the fire started in the first stanza. The image of the fire affecting the cold also begins the progression from dark and cold to light and warm that seems to flow through the poem.

Lines 7-8

Here, once warmth is established, the father calls to the son, who then performs the same act as the father in lines one and two by rising and dressing. This could be seen as a parallel between the two, to make a subtle connection that adds weight to the speaker’s lament. It is possible, the parallel suggests, that the speaker has come to understand this childhood experience by eventually finding himself in the role of the father.

Line 9

The second stanza then ends—as the first did—with an unexpected and powerful line. The idea of “chronic angers” is introduced into the calm scene in which the father makes the house warm and comfortable for his family. More specific information is not offered however, and the reader is left to guess who the source of the anger is, and what its causes might be. It is clear though that anger was a constant in the house, as much a part of the mornings as the fire itself. Hayden uses another hard “c” sound to express this, with the word “chronic,” which connects this idea of anger to the earlier description of the fathers painful hands, and the fire blazing. One could argue that this introduces complexity—psychological and structural—that makes the poem much more accurate a description of such familial interaction.

Lines 10-12

The third and final stanza begins with an image of emotional distance. This seems a fairly natural extension of the previous line’s mention of the presence of anger in the house. The next two lines, however, imply that as much as the indifference may have been self-protective, it was also ungrateful. There is no judgment made about whether or not the indifference was justified, or could have been helped. There is only the admission that, in addition to possibly being the source of “chronic angers,” the father also tended to his child. The images offered are clear and strong as first we are reminded of the building of the fire which drives out the cold, and then are given the more austere and sharper image of the man polishing shoes. Both of these images carry the connotations of the actions of a servant more than a father.

Lines 13-14

After establishing the complex emotional sense of the remembered ritual, the speaker poses a striking rhetorical question that will end the poem. Line 13 provides, with an almost pleading repetition, the admission of ignorance on the part of the speaker. Then Line 14 reveals what it is that the speaker was ignorant about, what he has discovered looking back on those mornings. It is the nature of love, more specifically the love of the father. The first key adjective to offer insight into this is “austere.” This means simple, or unadorned, but

Topics for Further Study

  • Write a poem about mornings that you remember from childhood, especially ones that frequently repeated the same pattern. Include something that you now think about that time that you did not think then.
  • What does this poem tell you about parents? About children? Do you agree with the ways it characterizes fathers?
  • What do you think the author means by “the chronic angers of that house”? Explain the assumptions you can make about this family’s life.

also removed from the ideas of pleasure. All of this we see in the description of the father who neglects his own comfort and confronts the cold and pain of his hands, in order to foster the comfort of his family. The second adjective, “lonely,” then adds to this the element of isolation, which the father experienced each morning as he built the fire.

All of this seems to point to the fact that when the speaker was young he doubted his father’s love; as a child he assumed love was expressed in certain, more obvious ways. It is not until the speaker has grown significantly older that he realizes that love is often expressed silently and indirectly, and he is then able to recognize it in the early morning gestures of his father. Though there is still a sadness at the end of the poem, a lament for the opportunity to thank the father, or treat him better, there is also a feeling of resolution. It is as if homage is being paid finally in the making of the poem.



It is evident that the speaker of this poem is telling his story from a distance in time. In trying to describe what it was like at his house on those mornings, he comes up with details that do not necessarily give the reader a vivid picture of the way things were. The details we are given are more impressionistic, giving us a sense of the young observer through the impressions he received. From the details here we can tell that the father worked hard as a laborer, outdoors in the cold; that the house was heated by a furnace that would burn out overnight; that the house was filled with unspecified “chronic angers”; and that the son owned more than one pair of shoes and he wore the good pair on Sunday. From these few facts, the reader has to fill in the life that has either slipped from the speaker’s mind, been suppressed, or has purposely been left incomplete to make the reader think.

Despite the good shoes, this is obviously a poor family: the father works six days a week (indicated by “Sundays too”), and the temperature in the house was allowed to drop so low in the night that reheating it made the woodwork splinter and break. For such a poor household to have special shoes for Sunday implies deep religious conviction, and yet there are those chronic angers. Who else lived there? Does “No one ever thanked him” refer to the child’s mother, siblings or extended family? These details are left out of this memory.

“What did I know,” the speaker repeats in the thirteenth line. Now an intellectual, he uses the words “austere” and “offices” when simpler, more direct words would be sufficient. From this perspective, only the harshest details surface to memory. The speaker of the poem tells us about love, but there is no mention of that love in the details that he remembers, precisely because the slim clues of his father’s love are shadows among things he remembers. The poem tells us that we tend to remember the bad things in life so clearly that it gives a distorted impression, but that we can find love when we examine our strongest memories.


The house in this poem is described as suffering “chronic angers,” meaning, first, that there is more than one type of anger there, and second that they are not brief flare-ups but are constant, and will keep repeating until they are cured. The reader is not given the source or sources of these angers. The reader does not even know to whom they belong. The poem’s speaker is afraid of this anger, so he is not the root of it, although he does contribute to the atmosphere by speaking indifferently. The father could be responsible for several layers of anger himself: a man working hard to raise a son alone could blame society for the bills he has to pay, or he could be angry at the boy’s mother, whether she has left him or even if she is dead. Anger is irrational. The reference to “no one” in line 5 implies, though, that several people live in the house and benefit from the stoked furnace. Whatever the relationship between the author and the events of the poem, it would be unfair of him to write a poem about anger without indicating the anger’s cause. Therefore, we can assume at least part of Hayden’s message to be that hard work causes anger; the ironic twist here is that the hard work is itself caused by love.


The household described here is ruled more by anger than by love, but at the end of the poem the speaker points out the love that he can see only now. Clearly, he was aware of his father’s actions as a child—he knew that his father woke up on Sundays to light the furnace in the cold, and that he polished the child’s shoes. If these gestures are only recognized by the son later in life, then their significance to him must have grown in his mind. It is a bleak childhood presented to the reader. There is something ominous about the improvised compound word “blueblack,” the description of the father’s cracked and aching hands, and the splintering, breaking sounds of the house warming. It is not until late in the second stanza that any emotions are revealed. At first the boy’s reluctance is shown with his rising “slowly,” but that can be explained away any number of ways until the very next line reveals what the tone of the poem has hinted at all along: fear. The poem first makes us feel, and then it describes, a hostile atmosphere that the speaker grew up in, so frightening that it made him stifle his words, “speaking indifferently,” even though he was to grow up to speak the flowing diction of the poem’s last line. This is the classic pattern of an oppressive, overbearing parent and a child who is rueful but obedient. The eternal question for psychologists and poets is whether such a relationship represents actual love, or if the child’s obedience is based only on intimidation. Hayden tries to show that love was hidden within anger, and he proves it by showing the father in a positive light, first physically (with descriptions) and then with the final line’s justification. The adult speaker of this poem could blame the father for being a bully and passing his pain along, but he does not. In the end, he says that he understands his father’s actions to signify love.


Robert Hayden had great understanding and skill when it came to writing in traditional forms and meter. Most often though he straddled the line of these forms and free-verse. “Those Winter Sundays” is an excellent example of how he would do this as it contains certain elements of a traditional sonnet. It is fourteen lines long, though these are broken up into three stanzas of five, four, and five lines respectively. Many of the lines are also written with exactly ten syllables, and while they are not in iambic pentameter, they are of the same length as the lines of traditional sonnets. Hayden would often use these loose interpretations of forms in his poetry.

Sometimes he would just use a certain number of stanzas, possibly composed of the same number of lines. Regardless of what form he used, Hayden’s poems always display meticulous consideration and control of the language and appear very strong or solid on the page.

Throughout the poem Hayden uses several poetic techniques that help hold the poem together and increase the power of the language. The first of these is consonance, which is the repetition of certain consonant sounds. The first stanza of the poem establishes a hard “c” sound, as in “cracked,” that is found often in the poem. There is also some use of alliteration. This is the close proximity of words beginning with the same consonant sound. An example from the first stanza is “weekday weather.” Finally, Hayden establishes very subtly a metaphor, or a figure of speech that allows one object to be representative of another. In this case it is the fire the father builds, that resembles the speaker’s discovery of his father’s love where he previously thought none existed.

Historical Context

At first, because of the personal nature of the poem’s central situation, there seems to be no sense in exploring the historical context of the time when it was published. It takes place within a household, between a father and son; the only real references to the world outside are that the father labored outdoors and that the son wore his good shoes on Sunday: these are circumstances that can be found in uncountable social situations throughout time. Robert Hayden’s work appears in anthologies of black writers, and he edited an important anthology

Compare & Contrast

  • 1962: Riots broke out on the campus of the University of Mississippi to prevent a black student, James Meredith, from enrolling. When the federal government forced the state government to stop blocking him, Meredith was admitted. For the first 10 months of his college career he had to attend classes under the guard of federal marshals.

    1995: A Supreme Court decision required the Citadel, a military school receiving federal funds, to admit its first female student, Shannon Faulkner. Within a month Faulkner dropped out, citing exhaustion from the exercise regimen.

  • 1962: The first American astronaut orbited the Earth.

    1969: The first person, American astronaut Neil Armstrong, stepped onto the moon.

    1986: The space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, as the entire nation watched.

    Today: International teams of scientists perform experiments in space.

  • 1962: The ABC network began broadcasting in color for three and a half hours per week.

    1967: All three American television networks were broadcasting all of their shows in color.

    1975: The first telecommunications satellite made cable television available across the country.

    Today: Almost 65 percent of American households have cable television; almost 80 percent of American households own videocassette players.

of black writers, yet there is nothing specifically about the black experience in this poem. This distance from social situation is particularly notable when one considers that it was published in 1962, a period of increased activity in the African-American community, when the Civil Rights movement was at its height. Understanding the background that Hayden chose to avoid in writing this poem can help the reader understand the intensity of feeling that the poet is reaching for.

During the last half of the 1950s, the cause of civil rights for African Americans made substantial legal progress. Since the Civil War in the 1860s, southern states had maintained laws that had made it illegal for black citizens to make use of the same facilities as whites. There were, for example, separate railroad cars, restaurants, public drinking fountains, hotels, campgrounds, taxi cabs, etc. Exclusion of African Americans was legal because of a Supreme Court ruling in 1898 in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, which stated that it was legal to offer “separate but equal” accommodations for blacks. In practice throughout the first half of the 1900s, the “separate” part of this doctrine was strictly enforced, with blacks punished by law for using property designated for whites, while the “equal” part was openly ignored. Beside the punishment of the legal system, African-American citizens were intimidated by the violence of vigilante “goon squads,” such as the Ku Klux Klan, which seldom faced punishment for murdering, beating or destroying the property of non-whites. In the 1950s, though, the blatant inequality in the southern states came to national attention, and the federal government stood against state governments to protect the rights of blacks. In 1954 the Supreme Court overturned the 1898 decision and ruled that schools could never be equal if races were separate, and would therefore have to be desegregated; this judgement was eventual applied to all other forms of segregation. In 1955 Dr. Martin Luther King led a boycott against the transit system of Montgomery Alabama to protest separate seating arrangements on buses: the year-long protest was victorious, showing the power of black consumers. In 1957, federal troops were sent to Little Rock, Arkansas, to face state National Guard troops whom the governor had ordered to stand in front of a high school to keep black children out. That same year Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act since the 1870s.

These political and legal advances for blacks did not cure social inequality: by 1962, they had created a great deal more unrest than satisfaction, by putting racial injustice into the front of everyone’s minds. White segregationists felt threatened by African-American gains and became even more violent, while blacks became impatient as society moved at a crawl to enforce the rights that had been recognized. Many schools admitted blacks, but some, such as the University of Mississippi, were still sites of violent resistance, approved of by state governors. To ensure enforcement of a 1961 ruling that banned segregation on all interstate roads and connected rest stops, buses of black and white youths, called Freedom Riders, rode the South and were often met with violence. With the passage of time, the once-solid civil rights movement was splintered by the different ideas that were brought to it. Some groups wanted to meet violence with violence, while others felt that the non-violent techniques that had been used in the 1950s were most successful. Some leaders, including Dr. King, welcomed whites who were supportive of their cause, while others, like Malcom X, felt that the problems of blacks could only be understood by blacks. If the 1950s had given African Americans the idea that they could stand in support of their racial identity, by the 1960s different factions of the Civil Rights movement stressed that they should.

Robert Hayden often maintained that he wanted to be thought of as a poet, not a black poet. He was born in 1913, and was in school during the Harlem Renaissance, which was America’s greatest grouping of African-American literary figures. Although he had been able to see the Renaissance writers succeed as blacks in literature never had before, he also saw the praise they received as always for being “black” artists, as if they had been held to a lower standard. Hayden, like any African American, knew what it was like to feel conspicuous because of his skin, but some of that effect was muted by his reaching maturity during the 1930s, during the Depression, when people of all colors had employment troubles. In 1943, Hayden converted to the Baha’i religion, which holds as one of its basic principles the recognition of universal brotherhood, regardless of race or gender. He was an intellectual and a man of letters, who received grants from foundations and a solid, prominent position teaching literature at Fisk University, which had been established in 1875 as the nation’s first black university. He was interested in poetic form, not politics. In 1966, he came under attack when Fisk hosted its first Black Writers’ conference, where Hayden was openly jeered for writing about personal subjects and not the African-American experience. Having been hailed as a leading black artist in the 1950s and 1960s, Hayden found his attempts to transcend race mocked by his own people. Until his death in 1980 he resisted attempts by social groups to influence his subject matter.

Critical Overview

Throughout much of his early career Robert Hayden was relatively ignored by poetry critics. Much of the attention he did receive came as strong criticism against him from those of his own race, African Americans, during the Civil Rights Movement. Some of the more militant black writers claimed that Hayden was denying his heritage by not writing directly about the political experience of being black in America at the time. Hayden asserted that he wanted to be considered an American poet, and not simply a black poet, and at a time when Blacks and America were at odds, certain members of the Black community saw this as a betrayal. The irony is that Hayden was fundamentally concerned with and interested in the history of being black in America. “Middle Passage” explores the frightening experience of a slave ship on its way to America. “The Ballad Of Nat Turner” and his well-known sonnet “Douglass” speak of great black figures in American history. Hayden’s concern was on the scale of history and mythology and not simply that of the current events of the time. He did not want his poems to ever be considered merely political propaganda.

Hayden finally began to get widespread critical recognition with the publication of A Ballad Of Remembrance in 1962. In The Georgia Review John S. Wright referred to him as “full-voiced and with consummate control.” A few years later, Hayden went on to win the grand prize for poetry at the World Festival of Negro Arts at Dakar, Senegal in 1966 for A Ballad of Remembrance. From this point on through the rest of his life Hayden grew in respect and position in the world of American Letters. In 1976, four years before his death,

What Do I Read Next?

  • Richard Howard’s anthology Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry Since 1950 was first published in 1965 and does not include Robert Hayden. It does, however, have an impressive selection of other influential poets of the time, Hayden’s peer group. This provides the reader with a good source of perspective.
  • After Robert Hayden’s insistence that he not be considered a “black poet” thrust him into controversy, he showed his awareness of his ethnicity in 1967 by editing Kaleidoscope: Poems by American Negro Poets. The selections reflect Hayden’s tastes and are generally more conservative than those found in similar anthologies.
  • W.E.B. du Bois was a leading intellectual of our century, a black scholar on par with Hayden, who brought racial issues to a new plane of analysis. His best writings were brought together in the 1971 collection A W.E.B. du Bois Reader.
  • The poet Langston Hughes, along with Milton Melzer and C. Eric Lincoln, wrote the text for A Pictorial History of Black Americans, published with new material in 1973. The pictures of the fight against segregation in the 1950s and 1960s tell much about what life was like when Hayden wrote this poem. Hayden was a fan of Hughes since childhood.
  • Of all the critical histories of black poetry written in recent years, Eugene B. Redmond’s 1976 Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry tells the story most coherently. Appropriately, he gives a large section to Hayden, who was still writing at the time, recognizing that other anthologies often left him out because of their difficulty categorizing him.

he became the first black writer appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. If there is a criticism to Hayden’s work it might well be that there is only so much of it. His life-long schedule of teaching, increased by his successes, ironically left him limited time to actually do his own work. Regardless of this fact, Robert Hayden’s poetry remains a valuable part of American literature.


Jeannine Johnson

Jeannine Johnson is a freelance writer who has taught at Yale University. In the following essay, Johnson provides a close reading of “Those Winter Sundays,” concluding that “Hayden’s poem honors the value of love’s simple, domestic services in our lives.”

From the very first words of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”, we realize that for everything the poem says, there is something else that remains unspoken. The words on the page explicitly state a certain meaning but they also imply, or indicate without directly stating, much more. For instance, the poem begins with the words “Sundays too my father got up early,” suggesting that this line continues a thought expressed before the beginning of the poem. The simple phrase “Sundays too” implies two things. First, it implies that the father’s actions took place on Sundays as well as on every other day of the week. It seems to continue an unspoken sentence that might read, “On every day, Monday through Saturday, and even on Sundays too my father got up early.” Second, it implies that there might be something uncommon or unexpected about the fact that the poet’s father got up early on Sundays. Sunday may be distinguished from other days as a traditional day of rest from the regular work week. In addition, in Christian religions, Sunday is set aside as a day of worship. As we read through the rest of the poem, we should bear in mind these special associations with Sunday morning.

The first line of the poem, which refers to “my father,” establishes a first-person speaker. It also shows that the speaker is recalling a time when he was a child. This line is grouped with four other lines and together they make up the poem’s first section, or stanza. In the rest of the stanza, the poet describes his father’s actions. He tells us that after awakening early, his father would get dressed and build a fire. But the first stanza says much more than this. The poet says his father dressed “in the blueblack cold,” indicating exactly how early he arose. His father got up before the house received the sun’s light and warmth, and therefore before dawn. But the unusual word “blueblack” creates a more precise visual image of that nearly pitch-dark time before sunrise than do the ordinary words “before dawn.” We know from the fact that someone in the family had to build a fire to warm the house that this was not a rich family with servants, for instance. Also, since this was a house without central heating, we might further conclude that its inhabitants were probably poor.

In the first stanza the poet describes his father’s hands with many suggestive terms. He calls his father’s hands “cracked” and tells that they “ached / from labor in the weekday weather.” We know from the title of the poem and from the need for a fire that these events take place during the winter. Thus, when the poet says that his father labored in “the weekday weather,” he not only informs us that his father worked outside but reminds us with the word “weather” that he worked during the cold winter. By referring to his father’s hands as “cracked” and aching, the poet calls attention to the fact that he performed manual labor. In so doing the poet also illustrates his own present sympathy for his father’s past deeds. Significantly, this sympathetic description is from the point of view of an adult remembering and not from the perspective of a child observing his father. For the speaker tells us that when he was a child, he did not recognize the efforts and sacrifices his father made. The poet states that “No one ever thanked him,” revealing that others in his family were as unappreciative of his father as he was.

The point of view of the poet as a child governs all of the second stanza and most of the third. He recalls waking up and listening to “the cold splintering, breaking.” Here the poet makes use of figurative language to more richly describe the sound of the fire his father had made. We would expect him to say that it was the firewood, and not the cold, that the child heard “splintering” and “breaking.” The poet applies these two verbs (”splintering” and “breaking”) which are associated with the sense of hearing to a noun (”the cold”) that is associated with a general sense of touch or physical feeling. (The technical term for this poetic method of describing one sensory faculty in the terms of another is called “synaesthesia.”) What was important to the child was that the house was getting warmer, and therefore he connected the sound of the crackling fire with his anticipation of not feeling cold when he got out of bed.

The child seems to have dreaded the chilly emotional atmosphere of his home as much as its physical coolness. Though he feared the “chronic angers of that house,” we do not witness any verbal or physical battles between family members. In fact, most of the poem points to a kind of deliberate silence among them. The father never heard words of thanks from his family, and the only conversation in the poem is recorded indirectly. The speaker remembers that “When the rooms were warm, he’d call,” but he does not explicitly quote his father. In addition, the poet recalls himself “Speaking indifferently” to his father, but again he offers this information without quotation. By these indirect summaries, the poet emphasizes that these were habitual, common interactions: what each person said was not unique and not worth a specific quote. But this lack of quotation in the poem also reflects the impaired communication among family members who were subject to the “chronic” or ongoing angers of the house. The word “indifferently” may point to the child’s attempt to hide or protect his feelings in a hostile environment.

The child’s indifference also reveals his attitude that these interactions with his father lacked significance for him at the time, perhaps because they were so common and familiar. But for the adult poet, it is precisely the predictability and ordinariness of his father’s actions (and of the poet’s own) that make them special to him now. At this point we should recall that these ordinary events occurred on an extraordinary day, Sunday. And the poet reminds us of exactly this fact when he writes that his father regularly drove out the cold “and polished my good shoes as well.” We may presume that the child wore these polished shoes, along with his best clothes, to church services. Again the poet uses a simple phrase, “good shoes,” to imply an unstated comparison with ordinary, weekday shoes. Furthermore, with those two words he makes it clear, without expressly stating, that it is Sunday.

The meaning of the poem remains somewhat open-ended, given that it closes with a question rather than a definitive statement. And the final question itself allows no easy interpretation. Since the poet repeats “What did I know, what did I know,” we should take particular notice both of that line and of the line that follows. Repetition is one way a poet calls attention to an idea, and in a poem as short as “Those Winter Sundays,” a repeated phrase has great significance. The repetition underscores a tone of uncertainty and disbelief in the poet’s question. It is as though the poet, reflecting on his own ingratitude, has difficulty admitting his former ignorance or lack of feeling. On the other hand, the repeated phrase may also sound a note of defiance. The poet may want to defend or excuse his thoughtlessness as an inevitable part of his immaturity. The ambiguity of the tone of this question may reflect the poet’s own ambivalence toward his father and toward his childhood. For, while the poet may regret his indifference toward his father’s acts of love, he still feels some of the pain of the “chronic angers” for which his father was also responsible.

Whatever the tone, this final question distinguishes the adult poet from the young child. The adult recognizes what the child could not, namely, the sacrifices that are bound up in a parent’s love for his or her child. We should note that there is something strange about the poet calling love’s actions “lonely” and “austere.” These two words emphasize solitude and strictness or even unkindness, concepts that we would not normally associate with love. But this seeming contradiction is precisely what the poet wishes to portray. His idea of love is that it has many conflicting qualities and that it expresses itself in complex ways. Importantly, the poet chooses “offices” to refer to his father’s actions and to stand as the poem’s last word. This term can mean “services” or “functions,” pointing to the idea that love serves its object. “Offices” also connotes “rites,” especially in the sense of religious observances. The last word of the poem then implies that the father’s deeds should be viewed as having all the ceremony and solemnity of a religious ritual. The end of the poem contains a moment of celebration, but it is a serious celebration, marked by a small sadness or remorse. Nevertheless, rather than foregrounding the Sunday customs of traditional religion, Hayden’s poem honors the value of love’s simple, domestic services in our lives.

Source: Jeannine Johnson, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.

John S. Wright

In the following discussion, Wright examines the parallels and autobiographical tones in Robert Hayden’s work.

In one of the quieter moments in the expanded edition of his last book, American Journal, Robert Hayden offers a rare, unmediated comment on the trajectory of his life: “When my fourth decade came, / I learned my name was not my name. / I felt deserted, mocked ... And the name on the book was dead, / like the life my mother fled, / like the life I might have known.” Other names, unwanted names—”Four Eyes. And worse”—kept Hayden inside and isolated as a boy, plying his abysmally poor eyesight with books. So “Old Four Eyes fled /to safety in the danger zones / Tom Swift and Kubla Khan traversed.” That world of the artist’s imagination seems to be a place of refuge but is in fact a danger zone, Hayden later concluded, because art is both cruel and mysterious. The cruelty of art, he alleged, is that it mockingly outlasts those who make it. The mystery of art he voiced in a simple question: “Why does it mean so much that it can determine one’s whole life, make a person sacrifice everything for it, even drive one mad?”

The mystery of his own art he was most sanguine about, saw himself, in fact—in that veiled, allusive way he usually treated the details of his own biography—as a “mystery boy” looking for kin. If Robert Earl Hayden had been a confessional poet, he would probably have made more capital out of a life rich with the dramatic tension he wanted his poems to have. He would have worked more pointedly the flamboyant ironies of a World War I era boyhood in the “Paradise Valley” section of Black Detroit. He would have exposed and explored how his work’s almost ritual preoccupation with identity, with names, and with ambiguous realities reflected the bruising fact that “Robert Hayden” was his adoptive, not his legal name and that discovering what that “real” name was served as part of his initiation into fuller manhood. If the confessional mode had better fit him, he would have chronicled also the “burdens of consciousness” that his dual commitment to human freedom and artistic integrity made him bear; he would have logged the jagged confrontation with the Black Arts writers which ultimately turned his long tenure at Fisk University into a trial of words and which made him for a moment seem a naysayer to blackness and so become one of a younger generation’s many scapegoat kings.

But Hayden was not a confessional poet like so many of his contemporaries because, as he acknowledged, he entered his own experiences so completely that he had no creative energy left afterward. He could admire the way that Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Michael Harper made poems out of devastating personal experiences; but he countered, in his own defense, that “reticence has its aesthetic values too.” And so, with words at least, he wore the mask, and won in wearing it the detached control and objectivity without which poetic marvels like his most widely acclaimed poem, “Middle Passage,” would not have been possible. From the apprentice work of his earliest book, Heart Shape in the Dust (1940), to the closing lines of American Journal, he pushed toward the mastery of materials, outlook, and technique that would enable him to strike through the masks reality wore. And so he made himself, like the Malcolm X of his honorific poem “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz,” one of Ahab’s Native Sons, though rejecting Ahab.

The continuities in the progressive unmaskings, which Robert Hayden described as his “slim offerings over four decades,” are striking. His absorption with the past, especially the black past, provided one axis of subject and theme for him—an absorption that brooked no lost Edens, no nostalgia, but which transformed archetype and artifact into a poetry of revelation. At the same time, he was drawn more to the dramas of human personality than to things or abstractions or philosophical ideas. In American Journal, as in all his books, the places, landscapes, and localities he recreates so minutely live primarily through his heroic and what he called “baroque” people—more often than not outsiders, pariahs, even losers. As he revealed in an interview with John O’Brien, Hayden thought of himself as a “symbolist of a kind,” as a “realist who distrusts so-called reality,” as a “romantic realist.” And he couched his symbolist explorations of human suffering and transcendence in a world-view permeated by an omnipresent, though never obtrusive, “God-consciousness.” Poetry, indeed all art, he felt, was “ultimately religious in the broadest sense of the term;” if poets have any calling beyond fulfilling the demands of their craft, he insisted, “it is to affirm the humane, the universal, the potentially divine in the human creature.”

Hayden was explicit about his own motives in a little book, How I Write, which he published with Judson Philips and Lawson Carter in 1972: “I write poetry,” he said, because

I’m driven, impelled to make patterns of words in the special ways that poetry demands. Maybe whatever it is I’m trying to communicate I can most truthfully express in poems. I think I have other reasons, too. At best, though, I can make only very tentative statements, and they’re subject to change without notice. I suppose I could say, with fear of contradicting myself later, that writing poetry is one way I have of coming to grips with both inner and external realities. I also think of my writing as a form of prayer—a prayer for illumination, perfection.

But he wasn’t satisfied with any of this, thought it sounded pompous, high-falutin’, though he knew it was about as close as he could come to an answer. The fuller answer, if more oblique, is projected, of course, in the body of his work. There

“That world of the artist’s imagination seems to be a place of refuge but is in fact a danger zone, “Hayden later concluded, because art is both cruel and mysterious.”

Robert Hayden the time-keeper, Robert Hayden the symbol-maker, Robert Hayden the believer, Robert Hayden the wrestler with language and form, all voice in concert “the deep immortal human wish” that man be “permitted to be man,” that injustice, suffering, and violence must yield, along with the inability to love on which they feed, to what Hayden’s Bahai prophet, Baha’u’llah, envisioned as the absolute, inescapable necessity for recognizing the fundamental oneness of mankind.

Far from embodying any naive optimism or sentimental religiosity, Hayden’s vision of the human predicament and of human possibility presents love as characteristically an agon, presents God and nature as beneficences shrouding caprice or indifference, presents our slow progress toward the godlike in man as a scourging, scarifying journey through maze and madness. That “voyage through death to life upon these shores” (which his “Middle Passage” chronicles, for example) discovers its metaphors for sin, sickness, and salvation in the historic matrix of the Atlantic slave trade and racial slavery. But the death wish, the masks, the phantasms that lure the crew and cargo of the slave ship Amistad figure no less potently in the timeless and seemingly antithetical “easeful azure” world of disquieting natural beauty into which the awestruck persona of Hayden’s “The Diver” descends.

But lest we overstress the dark side of Hayden’s poetic world, I should add that nothing in his work is less ambiguous, nothing more affirming of human hopes for illumination, perfection, and freedom than his gallery of portraits sketching the possibilities for heroic action in the face of even the most murderous and dispiriting forces. The flight to and fight for freedom dramatized in “Runagate Runagate,” the rectifying resurrecting images in his “Ballad of Nat Turner,” the transcendent fortitude captured in his dedicatory sonnet “Frederick Douglass,” the unbowed tradition of communal artistry celebrated in “Homage to the Empress of the Blues”—combine to create a lineage of heroic presences painted in rich hues and delivered from oppression and obscurity, presences to which all of us, at the level of will and aspiration, are kin....

The poetic inspiration behind Hayden’s images of the heroic came early in his career and stayed late. The apprentice poems of Heart-Shape in the Dust were largely imitative of the themes and conventions of the New Negro Renaissance, and reflected a young poet still in search of his voice. These first poems nonetheless made the rich storehouse of legend and lore (acquired by Hayden as a folklore researcher for the Federal Writer’s Project in the late thirties) into an enduring framework for later achievements. In this first book, his long mass chant “These Are My People,” his portrait of gallows-bound slave rebel Gabriel Prosser, the blues-toned resilience he pictures in the “po’ colored boy” of “Bachanale”—all offered shadings of the ordinary extraordinary heroic spirit that Hayden would continue to sing long after the formulaic stridency and vaguely socialistic ideology in which these poems were couched had disappeared from his poetic scheme.

During these formative years, Hayden absorbed and reconciled a variety of poetic influences—Dunbar, Cullen, Langston Hughes, Millay, Sandburg, Hart Crane, Stephen Vincent Benét, Eliot, and Yeats. In his second book, The Lion and the Archer (written with Myron O’Higgins and published in 1948), and in Figures of Time (1955) Hayden showed the impress of what he later called “a strategic experience” in his life: as a graduate student at the University of Michigan he had studied with W. H. Auden, and Auden had shown him his strengths and weaknesses as a poet in ways no one else had done. The Lion and the Archer and Figures of Time presented Hayden as stylist moving toward the baroque, the surreal, and away from what he rejected as “chauvinistic and doctrinaire.” The dated dialect and colloquialism of his earliest work gave way now to dense, sculpted language which glittered and whirled like a prism. And though his folk themes and heroic motifs acquired a new kind of grandeur, his audience—his black readers in particular—were not uniformly pleased with the changes. Heart-Shape in the Dust had been praised in Opportunity magazine as “a true marriage of form and content, a happy fusion of mastery of technique with the rough and raw material of life.” And Robert Hayden had been pictured to be a worthy challenger to Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown as an interpreter of Afro-American experience.

But as the scathingly sarcastic review in Crisis magazine of The Lion and the Archer showed, Hayden’s movement toward a more complex and consciously modernist poetry exacted the high price of what would be a recurrent accusation: that he had abandoned his people and his political commitments for a poetry of arcane, overwrought diction and professorial pretension.

There is little doubt that Hayden’s development as a poet has placed increasing demands on his readers; and Hayden himself—unceasingly self-critical—has acknowledged that he was inclined to be “perhaps oversensitive to the weight and color of words.” But the poetic language and form he experimented with during that crucial phase of his career was no mere library poet’s fixation on the ornamental and esoteric, nor any reclusive linguistic introversion. Hayden was seeking ways, on his own terms, to make the techniques and innovations of the New Poetry movement of the twenties and thirties his own, to bring all the resources of the English language—classical and vernacular, popular and academic—to bear on the illumination of Afro-American experience. He had “always wanted to be a Negro poet ... the same way Yeats is an Irish poet.” So he had always resisted the private temptation and the public call to restrict himself to the treatment of exclusively black experience. Yet he felt it was no paradox that he consistently found his most intensely universal symbols for human striving and strife in the materials of Afro-American life.

So with the appearance in 1962 of his fourth book, A Ballad of Remembrance, it was a Robert Hayden “meditative, ironic, and richly human”—qualities he ascribes to Mark Van Doren in that volume’s title poem—who, full-voiced and with consummate control, created from “the rocking loom of history” and the scenes of modern American life the sweeping mosaic of word, color, image, syntax, music, and portraiture that won him the grand prize for poetry at the first World Festival of Negro Arts at Dakar, Senegal, in 1966. With this book the recognition of Hayden’s achievements on the terms he sought it—as a poet and not as “a species of race-relations man”—was assured by the brilliant performances of “The Diver,” “The Ballad of Sue Ellen Westerfield,” “An Inference of Mexico,” “Tour 5,” “Homage to the Empress of the Blues,” “Witch Doctor,” “Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday,” “Those Winter Sundays,” “Middle Passage,” “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” “Runagate Runagate,” and “Frederick Douglass.”

Between 1962 and his death in February of 1980 Robert Hayden published five more books of poetry: Selected Poems in 1966, Words in the Mourning Time in 1970, The Night-Blooming Cereus in 1972, Angle of Ascent in 1975 (which recapped the work of the previous fifteen years); and finally the first edition of American Journal in 1978. In 1967, he published Kaleidoscope: Poems by American Negro Poets; and in 1971, Afro-American Literature: An Introduction. After twenty-two years’ service at Fisk University, he went home to Michigan in 1968. He spent the final decade of his life dividing his time among his family, yet another generation of students, and a poetry that (after his favorite volume, The Night-Blooming Cereus), was less embossed, less erudite, more serene even when dealing with the violence and chaos of the times, unguardedly conversational, and measurably freer—freed now, as one perceptive reviewer realized, through an imagination given wings by wisdom, style, and the science of language.

That hard-won freedom permitted Hayden in American Journal to return with greater imaginative detachment and detail than before to the scenes of the childhood where, by his own acknowledgment, “cruel and dreadful things happened and I was exposed to all kinds of ... really soul-shattering experiences in the home and all around me.” And indeed, the book’s emotional center lies in the Elegies for Paradise Valley stirred by the poet-persona’s memory of a seance his mother arranged with a counterfeit gypsy to contact the spirit of a murdered uncle. Returning with Uncle Crip from now vanished rooms and dead streets to flood the poet’s mind are the names and faces that make Paradise Valley a human kaleidoscope. And here in kaleidoscopic whirl, carefully wrought but unobtrusive, are all of Hayden’s trademarks as a poet: the sensuous delight with aural texture and rhythm; the fluid syntactic and semantic shifts between the spare and the ornamental, the colloquial and the esoteric; the line lengths expanded and contracted for sinuous and staccato effects; the haiku-like concentration of image. Limned with panoramic sweep and surreal juxtapositions amidst a progression of subtly shifting stanzaic forms, human character here takes on the intense coloration of the exotic, the idiosyncratic, the alien, yet is shaded as almost always in Hayden’s work by the common bonds of dying, of loving, and of evil. Hayden’s persona, whose first remembrance is of a junkie dying in maggots below his bedroom window, closes the eight-part reverie with a recollection of his own guilty boyhood impulses and his ruefully imagining himself “the devil’s own rag babydoll.”...

Michael Harper (one of the two “sustainers” to whom American Journal is dedicated) described Robert Hayden in a recent tribute as “a man of considered reserve, with an unsuppressible elegance, his bow-ties, watch-chain and old man’s comforts giving him the glow of a courtly preacher summoned to give the word, and well he did.” That word, at the end, was a question for the Furies that drove this “mystery boy,” who had looked so reverently, so transfiguringly, for kin and who made his fluent prayers for illumination and perfection seem so well answered.

Source: John S. Wright, “Homage to a Mystery Boy,” in The Georgia Review, Vol. 36, No. 4, Winter, 1982 pp. 904-11.


Wright, John S., “Homage to a Mystery Boy,” in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1982, pp. 904-11.

For Further Study

Barksdale, Richard, and Kenneth Kinnamon, Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology, New York: The MacMillian Co., 1972.

Published during Hayden’s lifetime, this work shows his strained politeness. The authors recognize Hayden as a major poetic talent but seem confused about how to fit him in as a “black writer,” which was the effect Hayden strove for.

Cooke, Michael G., Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

An interesting comparison is made here between Hayden and Alice Walker, whose works show a similar world view.

Williams, Pontheolla T., Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Smith’s thorough biography in the beginning of this book gives more helpful background than most critical analyses do. This is one of the most complete analyses of Hayden’s life and works.