Gratitude in Regret: An Example in Three Poems (Part 1)

Eyoh Etim

Sometimes in life we fail to appreciate the sacrifices and other forms of meaningful contributions that people make in our life because, most often than not, those sacrifices usually come off as inadequate or we are not mature enough to know what those people had to go through in order to be of help to us. Children, for instance, might have wrong perception about their parents for making them to wake up early in the morning, making them perform difficult tasks and punishing or disciplining them when they go wrong. However, at the onset of adulthood, people usually look back with the sudden realisation that everything their parents and guardians did was for their own good. This is what I call gratitude in regret. This is so because, in most cases, by the time these children come to their senses, so much time would have passed and their parents and guardians would have passed on as well. They cannot go back to apologise and ask for forgiveness; neither can they compensate them for their sacrifices.

Gratitude in regret is illustrated in three poems that I am about to discuss in this essay of three parts. The poems are Robert Hayden’s ‘Those Winter Sundays’, Isobel Dixon’s ‘Plenty’ and Mervyn Morris’ ‘Little Boy Crying’. In this first part of the essay, I will be analysing ‘Those Winter Sundays’ by Robert Hayden.  Hayden’s ‘Those Winter Sundays’ is a narrative poem. It is organised in three stanzas. Stanza one has five lines, stanza two has four lines while stanza three has five lines. The stanzas are all written in run-on-lines and in free verse. In the poem, the persona is recalling his childhood experiences, specifically the ones that happened on Sundays during winter. In the poem, the persona is remembering the kind acts and selfless service his father used to render to him and the family even when he, as a child, failed to appreciate those kind acts and selfless service.

The first stanza reads: ‘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.’ In this stanza, the persona records the selfless duties that the father used to perform for the family and how those duties went unappreciated. The expression ‘Sundays too’ suggests to the reader the idea that the man did not only wake up early on Sundays, he also made it a point of duty to wake up early every other day in the week. This man is seen to be a model as he sets good example for the child and the family. He does not only require others to wake up early, he also shows them how to do it by waking up early himself. Apart from this, he is depicted as a very hard working individual who toils all the days of the week to make ends meet so as to keep the family alive. The expression ‘the blueblack cold’ points to the severity of the winter weather which the man defies to serve the family. The words ‘cracked’ and ‘ached’ exemplify tactile imagery and are used to emphasise how hard working the man is and how hard his work is. The ‘hands’ mentioned in the third line of the first stanza also has a synecdochic texture as it refers to the man himself. There is the use alliteration in fourth line as can be seen the expression ‘weekday weather’ in which the semi-vowel /w/ is repeated. It is in this line that the reader is made aware of the fact that the boy’s father works every day of the week and does not rest on Sundays, as he is depicted waking up early to serve the family. In the final line, the first specific service rendered by the man is mentioned: he makes fire to warm the house for the family members. The expression ‘fires blaze’ constitutes visual imagery. Note the caesura in this in this line and the message that follows the total pause: ‘No one ever thanked him.’ What I find quite interesting about this poem is that though the man is never appreciated, he goes ahead to carry out this duty without complaint and without demanding to be appreciated.

The poem’s second stanza reads: ‘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’. In this stanza, it is illustrated that the father makes sure that the house is warm even before the child is awake. Thus, the father is depicted as protecting the family from the cold and its consequences. This stanza demonstrates the deep sense of love that the man has for his family. He is also shown to have a high sense of duty and to take his responsibility to the family seriously. There is personification in the first line where the cold is seen to be splintering and breaking. The line is also rich in auditory imagery as can be deduced in the words ‘hear’, ‘splintering’ and ‘breaking’. The present participles in the line also dramatise how the cold loosens its grips on the family. In the second line, it is shown that the man only asks the family members to wake up when he is sure that the house is warm enough for their comfort. Take note of the consonance in the words ‘rise’ and ‘dress’ in the third line which equally dramatises the VIP status of the boy as he rises slowly upon hearing his father’s call. The line can also suggest that the boy is unwilling to wake up at that particular time. The last line of the stanza is an instance of personification. It is likely that the angers that the persona refers to must stem from discipline and correction. After all, there is every possibility that he has just been woken up to prepare for church on a Sunday morning.

The last stanza of the poem illustrates the boy’s ingratitude to the father as he speaks indifferently to him. This means that the boy takes the service done him by the man for granted. He does not seem to accord the man the respect that he deserves; neither does he appreciate any of his efforts. In this stanza, it is shown that not only does the man make the house warm by making fire, he also polishes the shoes of the persona. This action depicts the man’s humility and highlights the boy’s sin of ingratitude. The fourth line utilises the device of repetition to emphasise the sense of ignorance and regret felt by the persona for taking the Dad’s kind actions for granted. The final line of the poem is at once personification and a rhetorical question with a philosophical bent. It allows the reader to reflect on how and why sincere love and kindness is usually repudiated and often goes unappreciated in human relationships.

Robert Hayden was an American poet who lived between 1913 and 1980.

Watch out for part two of Gratitude in Regret soon!  

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