14 December 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/50

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

Last week's poem was written in the certitude of belief; this week's is written out of a longing for belief. Yet it's not really religious faith that is longed for here, despite the references to Christmas, though that may be part of it.

The speaker is at a dying fire on Christmas Eve, when one of the old people refers to the ancient belief that at midnight on Christmas Eve barnyard animals reflect their ancestors' role in the original stable in Bethlehem by worshiping the Christ Child in some way. Often the story is that they are momentarily given the power of speech, but here it's that they kneel down in grateful praise of their creator. The atmosphere around this fire is rural and old-fashioned (for one thing, they are sitting around a fire, and discussing farm animals). The old folk belief is mentioned not as a charming curiosity but as a fact. Such is the mood of the group that no one there doubts it.

Doubts come in later, when the speaker (whose more sophisticated intellect puts him slightly out of place here, no matter what he temporarily feels on that Christmas Eve) describes the belief not as a matter of certainty but as "so fair a fancy" – charming, but all the more so because it is out of place with the way we live now, in industrial, urbanized, scientific (and alienated) societies. So the speaker – out of place in uneducated rural society, but also not quite happily settled in modern life – asserts his longing that this quaint notion be real. He feels (rather than thinks) that if someone invited him to see the oxen kneel, he would go.

When he imagines this invitation, it comes replete with suitably archaic, country words: yonder, as well as barton (a farmyard) and coomb (a short valley or hollow on a hillside or coastline). Melancholy attends this final stanza: the barton is lonely, it is distant from them, their childhood has long vanished, they proceed through the gloom. And he hopes, despite knowing better, that he will see that the lovely legend is real.

The longing here is not really for religious belief – it would be perfectly possible to be a staunch believer in the truth of the Incarnation and yet a doubter that some animals kneel at midnight on an arbitrary day to acknowledge it – it's really more for a vanishing way of life; not just the speaker's own childhood, but a rural, traditional and almost unchanging (until it vanishes) way of life that is in harmony with the natural cycles of the year and even with a spiritual meaning for the universe – a way of life in which even the old and experienced could unquestioningly believe that his animals know and acknowledge their creator on his birthday. It's about a longing for an unanxious community. (It's interesting to consider whether this world ever actually existed, or was created in retrospect as part of and in contrast to the modern world.)

To ask for this is to some extent to renounce modern consciousness; note the speaker's early reference to the group around the fire as a flock, a word usually associated with animals – that's the setting in which none of those around the hearth would think to question the old superstition. The oxen here – meek and mild – are appealing creatures. But could the speaker, with the essentially modern restlessness and uncertainty of his intellect, settle into such company easily? Or is he cut off from such certainty (or complacency), ever to be in-between what he knows and what he wishes were true?

This is from Christmas Poems, selected and edited by John Hollander and J D McClatchy for the Everyman's Library Pocket Poet series.

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