By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published February 24, 2022
February has always been one of my favorite months. The great celebratory liturgical seasons of Christmas and Epiphany come to an end, and we acknowledge Candlemas, the presentation of the Infant Jesus in the temple, when Anna and Simeon in their old age were allowed a glimpse of God’s promise fulfilled.
February also follows a month in which the church compels us to pray for unity among Christians and for the sanctity of all life, two intentions which seem beautifully linked to this month’s celebration of love on Valentine’s Day, and the designation of February as Black History Month.
That we also acknowledge a groundhog in February and that the month mysteriously grows by an extra day every four years has also always endeared it to me.
All of this seems connected to the Catholic values of love, unity, ecumenical understanding, empathy, and mystery. February is a fine time to contemplate what Walker Percy called “the holiness of the ordinary,” and all of these values are evident in the great poem “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, the nation’s first African American Poet Laureate.
Hayden resisted being labeled a “Black Poet;” he preferred instead to be appreciated as a poet who just happened to be Black. This refusal to be restricted by terminology is one reason that so much of his best poetry achieves what all great poems should do: rather than describing only himself and his experiences, Hayden transcends the particular to write verse that has universal resonance and appeal.
Such is the case with “Those Winter Sundays,” which first appeared in his 1962 collection “A Ballad of Remembrance.” Sixty years later, the poem has become one of the most anthologized in America; I teach it in all of my poetry courses. While the poem references some of Hayden’s own childhood memories, most of the poem is universal in tone, and Hayden should not necessarily be considered the speaker. Here is the poem:
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?
The poem is a masterful example of balancing sentimentality with truth. We feel both heartache and remorse when we read it, yet we also understand the truth about the sacrifices the father makes for his family.
“Sundays too” is one of my favorite phrases in modern American poetry. Just those two words tell us volumes about the father’s life. It is probably a hard life, a life marked by monotony and labor. He works every day in “weekday weather,” and his work has led to “cracked and aching hands.” Rather than telling us the details of the father’s week, Hayden shows us. Saturdays, the poem implies, are workdays as well, and even on Sunday, the father is up at dawn. On his one day of rest for the week, he still rises early to build a fire so that the family awakens in a warm house.
Listen to the sounds in the first stanza. The poem’s sound echoes its sense; in this case, the sound captures the literal crackling of the fire. Blueblack, cracked, ached, weekday, banked, splintering, breaking: all those hard “k” sounds create the essence of the fire.
Note that only “when the rooms were warm” the father calls. Here, Hayden lets us use our imagination. It’s Sunday, so perhaps the family will go to church. We read in the third stanza that indeed the father has “polished my good shoes as well,” which might be the most touching—and risky—image in the poem.
Yet Hayden also puzzles us. What are the “chronic angers of that house?” Why does the speaker “fear” them? We don’t know, and we don’t need to know. The real subject of the poem isn’t found in hard times or hard feelings; the essence of the poem is sacrificial and sincere love, a love that is taken for granted by the speaker, who only later in life has the maturity and insight to lament his loss. In youth, he “speaks indifferently” to the father who has provided shelter, warmth, and comfort. He’s even shined the speaker’s shoes.
He has done all of this as a kind of “office,” an “austere and lonely office” much like the Liturgy of the Hours prayed throughout the day in a monastery.
An invitation to imagine
Robert Frost once compared a poem to “an ice cube on a hot stove that must ride on its own melting.” Hayden’s poem is a beautiful example of that truth. By giving us just enough information, Hayden lets us bring to the poem our own experiences and insights. The more we think, the more meaning we bring to the poem. Most of us can relate to the ingratitude and indifference of the young speaker. We can probably also relate to the sacrifices that our parents made, and that we have made. We know, too, how those sacrifices often were and are taken for granted.
Yet as Catholics, we also bring to the poem a spiritual dimension, one that Hayden hints should be acknowledged in the image of the polished shoes on a Sunday. The image of the father making a fire then calling to his son might evoke the story of Abraham and Isaac. The calling father might remind us of Samuel and Eli, and Samuel’s response at last to God. Even the shining of the shoes, an act of love, may reference Christ’s washing his Apostles’ feet on Holy Thursday. Hayden was raised Baptist; he knew these stories.
My students often tease that English professors “over-analyze,” and perhaps we sometimes do. Flannery O’Connor reminded us, of course, that “Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling is absent, theory cannot supply it.”
For me, however, a poem—like any work of art—is an invitation to use our imagination. In using our imagination, we touch not only our intellect, but also our soul. That is the essence of the Catholic response to the liturgical, the sacramental and the aesthetic. Or, as Archibald MacLeish put it, “A poem should not mean, but be.”
In 14 short lines, Robert Hayden summons insight and emotion that are remarkable. We are reminded of the cruelty of ingratitude, and the severity of lessons learned too late. We look into the heart of love and see what it really should be—solemn in its surrender to self.
The theology of presence in absence is one of the great mysteries of our Catholic faith. What we don’t experience with our senses can be as profound as what we do; likewise, we often don’t see until we can’t see—think of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. There is much in “Those Winter Sundays” that is not said, and that absence is what makes the poem brilliant, for it calls us into a deeper reflection upon the poem’s universal truths.
Finally, like all great art, “Those Winter Sundays” calls to us again and again, no matter how many times we read it, for even as it moves us it has much to teach us too.
Robert Hayden died 42 years ago, on Feb. 25, 1980, the day after a winter Sunday, when I was still a boy.
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.