Love: A Remedy for Tough Times
Can you recall all the things your loved ones have done for you? Out of all those times, how often have you thanked them? Robert Hayden reflects on such things and shows us his past, his chronically cold home, and the love that goes behind labor in his poem, “Those Winter Sundays.” In this poem, he describes the harshness of the weather that has crept into his home and how he fears it. All the while, he displays the unthanked efforts his father put in to keep the cold out and take care of him, from starting the fireplace to polishing his good shoes. By alluding to a specific memory and using descriptive tones and phrases, he paints the cold as a villain and his father as an unsung hero while simultaneously juxtaposing the father’s efforts and injury as a result. Through thoughtful use of diction, imagery, and personification, Hayden shows that unconditional love counters hardships and abuse.
Firstly, Hayden uses words that evoke images of physical abuse, injury, and damage to describe the feeling of the house. Such descriptors include the “blueblack cold” (2) and “chronic angers of that house” (9). Such descriptors can make readers feel like this house and the temperature within is something they can’t escape, much like an abusive relationship.
To further elaborate on “blueblack cold” (2), the colors blue and black are reminiscent of the color of the sky during the day and night. This can show that the cold is ever present, especially because this poem takes place during Winter. Furthermore, the poem also takes place during a Sunday, the day of the week that represents rest. Because the father is still working on this day, it reveals that like the cold, the father does not rest.
Not only that, but additionally these colors also represent the color of bruises, how the bumps and wounds go from red to purple and black. Bruises hurt and take time to dissipate, just like the cold. So when the father gets up in the cold, he leaves the shelter and warmth of the bed to get ready and prepare his house. To this end, he is in a way bruising and subjecting himself to abuse over the course of winter. This also isn’t the last time Hayden portrays the weather as abusive in the poem.
Hayden’s choice of imagery is proven to be deliberate when the cold carries the same connotation further along the poem. The emotions behind “blueblack cold” align with when he speaks of the “chronic angers of that house” (9). He again describes the cold as this inescapable abuser, something which he is scared of when he gets up in the morning. This is important because the one force that rids the house of the cold is Hayden’s father. As such, the symbol of abuse pushes against the character of the father. Hayden shows the results of this conflict through the remembrance of his father’s Sunday morning routine.
So secondly, Hayden continues with abusive and aggressive imagery, as well as alliteration and metaphors, to show the effects of the cold on Hayden’s father and vice versa. One such phrase reads, “cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze” (3-5). These lines are almost a story within themselves following the context of the poem. For hands to crack, they must be heavily calloused and used. This can be cracked skin on the surface, or even splintered bones on the inside. It is wear and tear that is both visible and invisible, and it’s a sign of his fathers’ work throughout the week. Not only that though, but this quote also shows that the father is acting against the cold, making fire to heat the house up. The father and the cold are enemies. Once again, Hayden shows that both the cold and his father are unrelenting and constantly fighting. Through this continuous balancing act between contrasting and comparing the two, Hayden has established them as equals.
By personifying the cold, Hayden has turned the cold into a villain and his father into a hero while making them foils and reflections of each other. In other words, they are now two halves of the same coin. If the cold represents abuse, anger, and fear, then the father represents love, compassion, and care. As we see in the poem, even though the cold creeps in and infiltrates the house, it breaks and splinters like firewood when the father brings warmth into the home and allows Hayden to comfortably leave his bed.
It can be hard to remember what a parent does for us when there is too much in our minds at the moment. Robert Hayden weaves his words’ denotation and connotation together to describe one such time where he had forgotten about his father’s love. He personifies the cold and paints it as an abuser and turns his father into an avatar for parental love. These two symbols clash throughout the poem, and through this recollection of one winter Sunday, Hayden expresses that love can counter and defeat abuse.
Hayden, Robert. “Those Winter Sundays.” Collected Poems, edited by Frederick Glaysher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, A Division of W.W. Norton & Company, New York, New York State, 2013.
About the Artist
Vinh Ta was born in San Jose, and grew up in a Vietnamese household. Vinh's parents never had the chance to go to college because of the Vietnam War, so they pushed their children towards it. In Vinh's own words, "I enrolled at SJSU right after high school, but was dropped from my classes after a year. I couldn't bear to tell my parents...I revealed the truth after two years. Feeling rejuvenated and redemptive, I enrolled into Mission College for the Spring in 2020."