Austere and Lonely Offices

It’s been cold in the mornings.

It’s not really that cold, I suppose, but I’m used to a more tropical climate, and I haven’t spent a fall and winter in the Pacific Northwest in four years. It’s getting harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning before the heat has kicked in.

And it’s only 63 degrees in our house.

I’ll get used to the cold. Once we’ve gone through our first winter, I’m sure 63 degrees will feel wonderful, even warm. These days, however, the way I feel when I’m cold in the morning makes this poem come alive for me:

“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 room 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 drive 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, 1962 (source)

“the blueblack cold”

The imagery here is so vivid.

The cold is “blueblack,” and I picture a winter morning that’s so dark and so cold the night is inky all around the father as he rises alone.

His hands are cracked—maybe from the cold—and they ache from working outside in freezing temperatures, but he doesn’t use his own discomfort as an excuse. He never complains. Instead, he resuscitates the fires that have died down during the night.

His son, the speaker of the poem, wakes up but stays in his bed until the room was warm and his father called to him. He doesn’t think of his father—when he speaks to him, it is “indifferently”—because he’s absorbed in his own experiences.

But his father doesn’t seem to resent his son’s apathy. At least, if he does, we don’t hear about it. Instead, we read that in addition to driving out the cold, the father has polished his son’s good shoes for him.

At the time, the speaker saw nothing remarkable in his father’s actions, nothing worth noticing. Now, however, looking back, he sees that his father’s actions every winter Sunday morning were an act of love, and he asks himself,

What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?


The Oxford English Dictionary defines “austere” as

severe in self-denial or self-restraint; stringently moral; characterized by abstinence or asceticism”

The speaker recognizes that his father’s love was rooted in self-denial, in abstaining from what he would have found most pleasant so he could serve his family.

Isn’t that what love is?

Putting aside what I feel like doing and doing instead what benefits others?

There’s self-denial involved in love because it involves recognizing that there’s something more important than what I want, than what would make me happy. And there’s morality—stringent morality, according to the dictionary definition—because this kind of selfless love hinges on doing what’s right, not what’s easy.

There’s another definition for “austere” in the Oxford English Dictionary:

“severely simple in style or character; free from luxury; plain, unadorned

Love is, most of the time, not terribly exciting.

Whether it’s romantic or platonic, love usually consists of simple, “boring” things:

  • Doing the dishes so the other person doesn’t have to.
  • Sitting on the porch together, watching the twilight come in.
  • Cleaning up children’s messes.
  • Remembering to say “Good morning.”
  • Getting up first so the house is warm for everyone else.

It’s simple. It’s unadorned. But it’s usually the little, “austere” things that matter the most.


“having no companionship or society; unaccompanied, solitary, lone”
—Oxford English Dictionary

My mental image of love involves being with the person I love.

I love my friends—and I picture hanging out, going out for coffee, having a game night.

I love my family—and I picture eating dinner together, cleaning up together afterward, family movie night.

If I’m ever in love, I picture lots of time spent together, talking and working and sometimes just sitting in shared silence.

But in this poem, love is lonely.

Honestly, self-denial is easier when you have company. Washing a pile of dishes after a special event is lots more fun when you’re doing it with a friend. Cleaning the house is less of a burden when you put on peppy music and do it with your family.

But love requires us to do things alone—things that aren’t fun and that don’t bring us any enjoyment. Getting up in the cold while everyone else is asleep is not pleasurable, but the speaker’s father did it week after week because he loved his family—and he demonstrated that love in practical, difficult, lonely ways.

“No one ever thanked him.”

The speaker’s father did this austere, lonely task with no reward and no thanks—yet he didn’t stop doing it, and he didn’t grow bitter because his family was ungrateful.

In a book I read recently, a character was taking a vow to join a special group of warriors. During the ceremony, he was asked this question:

“Will you defend that which is human and mortal, knowing that for your service, there will be no recompense and no thanks but honor?”
—Cassandra Clare

“No thanks but honor.” That’s why acts of love are so often “austere and lonely.” Love, as defined in “Those Winter Sundays”, is doing what benefits someone else at my own expense, knowing there will be no reward for my labor, no thanks but the knowledge that I have done what is right.

Is that the kind of love I practice?

For never anything can be amiss
When simpleness and duty tender it.
—William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1, line 413

What “austere and lonely offices” have you noticed yourself or others doing for the people they love?

One Comment

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