I came across Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen” today, and thought it was fittingly Christmas-themed now that we have entered December. His poem explores the Christmas superstition that oxen kneel, as they supposedly did in the Nativity, on Christmas Eve at midnight. He recounts the credulousness of his childhood: “Nor did it occur to one of us there/ To doubt they were kneeling then” (ll.7-8). This memory of trust is treated gently, reflected in the idealised portrayal of the “meek milk creatures” dwelling “in their strawy pen” (ll.5-6). Hardy’s poem draws on folk tradition, utilising dialect such as “barton” and coomb” (l.13), to create a sense of authenticity and to evoke the Oral tradition as embodied in the figure of the “Elder” (l.3), largely displaced by the Industrial Revolution.
“The Oxen” was written in 1915, long after Hardy had moved away from his Christian faith. The use of the word “flock” (l.3) to describe the children gathered has strong religious connotations, and reflects the beliefs of his own childhood. By 1915, the First World War was occurring, destabilising the metanarrative of religion as explored by the contemporary modernists.
Hardy’s poem examines this loss of faith, and yet by the third stanza, he imagines somebody calling him back to see the oxen of his childhood. The poem expresses a want to believe; Hardy claims that he would “Go with him in the gloom” (l.15) of his disbelief and of society fractured by war “Hoping that it might be so” (l.l.16). However, the uncertainty of “might” reminds the reader of the credulousness of adult life, and of modern society, ending with a childhood superstition which remains just that.
Here’s “The Oxen”:
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
A Elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in a 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 might go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.