Robert Hayden's poem is written as a soliloquy by an adult son who recalls his stern and taciturn, but loving father, a father whose love he has failed to recognize as a boy, partly because of his youth, and partly because of his lack of understanding of the condition of his father as an African-American male and the conflicting emotions--"the chronic angers of that house"--he felt and brought home to his family. Now, as an adult, the son understands that his father communicated his love through his actions:
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.
That the father has allowed the son to rise "slowly" indicates that he treats the boy with more tenderness than is apparent since he could have made his son rise and help him with the fires as he started them. Further, the man's gentle feelings of love are certainly apparent in his having polished the boy's good shoes for going to church. And, in the realization that the boy's life will be hard as an adult, perhaps the father is "austere" in his love in order to harden the boy to the "lonely offices" of adult life as an African-American male who must labor with "cracked hands."
Indeed, the powerful final lines express the man's apprehension of what he did not know as a boy and his regret for his misunderstanding of the extenuating conditions of his father's life,
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
Thus, the themes of ingratitude and hindsight prevail in this poem about an unacknowledged love by a father for his son.