It's a sad poem, and one I had to write, almost as an act of expiation. The last stanza—oh, it's full of regret. Many people have told me this poem expresses their own feelings exactly. Some have even wept when they've heard it as poetry readings I've given. It seems to speak to all people, as I certainly want my poems to do. For quite a while after I wrote it, I couldn't get through a public reading of this poem because of its emotional impact on me. It doesn't affect me so much now, unless I'm tired or depressed. It's in a great many anthologies, although nobody paid much attention to it at first.Marianne Boruch zooms in on the poem's ending:
"Austere" has to have one of the most violently beautiful effects in English, distant and vulnerable at once, public and hidden, held upright by enormous pressure, inside and out. And here, its sound—its iambic lift—the second syllable stressed, adds a brief and expansive counter-rhythm. We hear in that both contraction and expansion. But it's "offices" here that compels, and is brilliant, a word going straight into ancient practice. I remember a young priest in my childhood parish at dawn, reading the matins from his Divine Office, walking the streets as he read, never looking up as we biked by to early Mass. Something vast, nearly incomprehensible looms up in that word. In Hayden's poem, it brings humility—what's been done and done again; one merely partakes of that. But nobility's there too—ditto, done and done, this time into tradition and so heavy, we no longer even know how to weigh it. The power of a single word can be staggering. And finding it, trying to figure out why it works—really why other choices do not—can take a long time and is the writer's most essential, brain-fracturing job.
Robert Pinsky discovered firsthand how popular the poem had become:
Certain poems were written about by many different people who wrote to the Favorite Poem Project. Perhaps the most striking instance was the large number of various, intense letters about this poem by Robert Hayden, the first African-American to hold the post that came to be called Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. The poem does pack remarkable power into its 14 lines. The cogency of phrases like "the chronic angers of that house" seems related to the wide appeal that brought letters from people of so many different ages, professions, regions, ethnicities. Maybe the partial rhyme with "dress" adds to the phrase's power: Certainly the poem demonstrates how like vowel and consonant sounds in an "unrhymed" poem can have tremendous effect. And the cold, ordinary word "offices" at the very end of the poem is like an icicle that touches the heart.David Biespiel calls the poem a "heart-wrenching domestic masterpiece":
What it discovers is a synchronicity of sound that embodies the poem’s spirit of reconciliation. Listen to the K sounds: blueblack, cracked, ached, weekday, banked, thanked, wake, breaking, call, chronic. That percussive, consonant-cooked vocabulary is like a melodic map into how to read the poem, linking the fire, the season, the father, and his son. Then there’s what the poem defines, unspoken love. It begins with the father toward the son, when he makes the fire. Then, the unspoken love is returned, when the adult son asks, "What did I know, what did I know...?" The tone of that repetition—more statement than question—cuts from indifference to guilt to admiration. It’s a fast moment in the poem that blossoms into the last word, "offices," a metaphor that expresses the endurance required of long-term love, of manual labor, and of the official fatherly role. Yet it all begins with that quiet, understated opening line ("Sundays, too, my father got up early"), which defines Hayden’s initial memory, as well as bringing to mind the other unmentioned six days of the week—and for how many years?—when the father began each day in the cold darkness, to warm up the home for his still-dreaming child.