It’s probably been 20 years since I first read “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden (1913-1980). I read it now through the lens of a 48 year old parent rather than a 20-something with no kids. But it’s impact is no less. If anything, it’s grown.
The story of the poem is simple: Hayden is reflecting on his father lighting a fire every morning so the rest of the family could get up in a warm house. Hayden’s sparse portrait of his father gives the impression he did manual labor for work; building the fire every day was just more manual labor piled on.
Hayden reflects that he never thanked his father for doing this chore. He mentions “the chronic angers of that house” and shows their strained relationship: “Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold.”
What really hits me about this poem, though, is the last line: “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” Hayden captures so much shared experience in these few words. So much of love is unnoticed, unrewarded, and unappreciated. Love often involves cost and suffering—austerity. It can also be lonely when you do thankless things for others that might not understand until years later—if ever.
That’s the other beautiful part about this poem: Hayden does come to understand his father’s gift of lighting the fire; this enables him to see his father in a different light and to forgive him. Hayden’s perspective has grown past the snap judgments that are easy and endemic to younger people. Redemption is the poem’s fading cadence.
You can read “Those Winter Sundays” here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46461/those-winter-sundays. I hope you will read the whole poem (it’s short!) and that it will become a favorite!