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Love is a fire — but what does it take to make a fire blaze?

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Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" shows us what it takes to light the fire.

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?

-Robert Hayden

Everybody’s favorite metaphor for love is fire. We talk about the spark of love that grows to a flame. Love is something that burns within us. Loving people  are “warm-hearted,” and indifferent ones are cold. The comparison is appropriate. Fire is beautiful, life-giving, mysterious, and very dangerous if mishandled. It’s one of the bedrocks of civilization — just like love.

Well, “Those Winter Sundays” is all about fire, and all about love — but it focuses on what it takes to light the fire, instead of how delightful it is when the fire is finally blazing. People talk about the ache of love, but here, it is the father’s hands that ache. Even on Sunday, love can’t rest. Even on a feast day, love must attend to its “austere and lonely offices.”

The man’s son  remembers how “no one ever thanked him” for the sacrifice. It just didn’t occur to them. The work would have been missed, for sure, if the fires weren’t lit, but the job was necessary, expected, and so ordinary that it never looked like love. It was just part of life. But that’s the thing about love — it really is just part of life. Sometimes it’s exciting, sometimes it’s invisible, and sometimes it’s an ordeal.

Now, looking back at his childhood, the son understands ordinary acts of love in a new way. It’s reflected in the language. The words the now-grown son uses to describe his father’s work paints him as some kind of mythic hero, like Hercules. You can’t help but compare his “cracked hands” with the cold, which splinters and breaks as the house heats up. As much as the cold is feared by his family, the father is a match for it. The way he “made banked fires blaze” comes across as almost magical. As for how the father “had driven out the cold,” it’s a strenuous image, almost a description of a fight. The father, pitted against the blueblack cold, prevails.

And yet, the son doesn’t forget his father’s gentleness. He drives out the oppressive cold, but he he also  polishes his son’s Sunday shoes. The contrast between the heroic struggle against the cold and the domestic, careful task of just polishing those shoes stands out, and it’s those two memories together that finally change the tone of the poem. Where it had previously been matter-of-fact, suddenly the son’s regret breaks through. “What did I know, what did I know?” Love is very different from what he’d thought it was.

Hayden used the right image. Love is joyful, but it can be lonely, too. The fire that the father lights is fierce — it drives out the terrible chill — but it’s also gentle, creating an atmosphere in which his family can thrive. The fire is dramatic, as it begins to blaze, but it’s also ordinary enough to go almost entirely unnoticed. The fire is necessary, but not less an expression of love than if it were exciting and new.

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