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The Oxen

December 27, 2016

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

–Thomas Hardy 1915

COMMENTARY: In various folk mythologies, animals get up to strange things at midnight on Christmas Eve. In certain Catholic traditions, every animal suddenly learns to talk at midnight, and donkeys have a shinning cross appear on their backs. Apparently, in 19th century rural England, the oxen would all get down and kneel on the straw, reenacting the reverence their manger ancestors greeted Jesus with. It’s a nice story and apparently had something of an impact on Hardy’s imagination, as he refers to it other works. In Tess, the jovial dairyman tells a story of a fiddler, who, crossing a field, gets chased by a wild bull. Realizing he’ll never outrun it, he takes out his violin and plays it a Christmas Carol. The bull’s fooled, and, when, it kneels to pray, the fiddler escapes.

Hardy’s telling of the loss of belief in that story–its transformation from truth to “so fair a fancy”– is somewhat whimsical, but, underneath the cheerfully rhymed quatrains and the cute evocation of the firelight and the little animals in their pens, is real melancholy. Hardy, like many Victorian intellectuals, witnessed cultural change through which it became impossible to believe the Christian stories which had been if not taken for granted at least credible for hundreds of years. On the simplest level, the poem is an old man’s lament for lost childhood innocence, but, on a deeper level, it is an old culture’s lament for its lost faith. In the last stanza, that teetering, two-line pause before, “I would go” and the strongly placed words “lonely” and “gloom,” make the nostalgic hope (which the last line seems to affirm) heavily darkened by regret.

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