"To write is itself an act of faith. Apart from this, Mr. Hardy comes as near faith, perhaps, as the average man of this unsettled hour." — The Athenaeum (January 1918)

In Critical Introduction to the Poems of Thomas Hardy (1991), Trevor Johnson rightly reminds readers of Hardy's poetry that an awareness of the contemporary context of "The Oxen"--the horrors of trench warfare as conveyed in the British press--does much to inform the meaning of this particular "reverie."

The date of this poem has to be taken into account: to any soldier in the trenches who happened to read a copy of The Times for 24 December 1915 in which The Oxen first appeared, the picture of the meek, mild creatures in their strawy pen must have been almost unbearably poignant. Though Hardy's only reference to the war is the phrase In these years!, the second half of the poem reveals his characteristic rejection of easy sentiment. [148]

Moving from what could have been the first published critical appraisal of the poem's initial peritext, Johnson glances only momentarily at the folk tradition surrounding the poem before focussing on the implications of Hardy's emending the original "believe" of the ninth line to "weave" for the final version of the poem as it appeared two years later in Moments of Vision. Although the ramifications of this change are noteworthy, Johnson has failed to see the poem whole, that is, as what King correct recognizwes as "a significant anecdote, chosen or invented, not merely for its own sake, but for its value as a symbol, as a 'moment of vision' which gathers up the emotional experience of years" (107). And, King might have added, of centuries of comforting tradition, now shattered by scientific rationalism and the barbarity of the new century's first great war. Johnson notes how widespread was the belief in the kneeling of the oxen on Christmas Eve --"the diarist, the Reverend Francis Kilvert," he tells us, "actually met an old man who claimed he had 'seen the oxen kneeling . . . with the tears running down their faces' (148).

Unfortunately, he fails to explore the formidable literary antecedents of "The Oxen." One should, for example, note the connection between Hardy's Yuletide offering and John Milton's ode "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" (1629) redolent with portents attendant upon the birth of Christ:

Nature in awe to him
Had dofft her gaudy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathize . . . . [lines 32-34]

This conception of the special sanctity of the season of Christ's birth is in turn a reflection of that rehearsed by Horatio in Hamlet:

that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is that time. [I, i; 158-164.]

Even though present-day readers of the poem are prepared to accept that the kneeling of the oxen on Christmas Eve holds some special significance for the poem's persona, the "gloom" of the last line seems singularly inappropriate. A coherent interpretation must take into account the speaker's twin attitudes to the folk-myth behind the poem (which becomes first its central image and ultimately its controlling metaphor), the perspective of the principal speaker about his lost innocence, the relationship between the poem's three voices, and even the stanza form, metrification, and poetic devices that Hardy has employed.

Published in the Times on Christmas Eve, 1915, the lyric is founded upon the old folk tradition that, as Hardy's mother told him as a child, the creatures whose ancestors witnessed the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem kneel to commemorate the event every Christmas Eve at midnight. Despite its seasonal setting and publication, on a first reading "The Oxen" seems hardly suggestive of the yuletide cheer one would expect from a poem whose manuscript was described in a 1932 gallery catalogue as "verses for Christmas Eve" (Folsom catalogue cited in Poetical Works, II: 499). However, if one takes into account such seasonal ghost-stories as Dickens' "Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton" in Pickwick Papers (1836) and, of course, A Christmas Carol (1843), a reminiscence about a supernatural event on the night before Christmas may not seem so out of place. As Ruth Firor in Folkways in Thomas Hardy (1931) notes,

The belief that the animal creation worships at the season of Christ's birth is familiar and widespread; only those who can see ghosts at Christmas have the power of hearing the cattle, sheep, and horses talk, as they do talk at this holy season. [151]

Nevertheless, the poem is neither picturesque nor sweetly nostalgic, but aches with a sense of loss and exclusion. "In 'The Oxen' the poet looks back regretfully to his boyhood days when he believed in miracles" (Firor 150) and was charmed by the naive folk belief in the kneeling of the oxen. As critics such as R. W. King (1925), Carl J. Webber (1940), C. Day Lewis (1951), Tom Paulin (1975), J. O. Bailey (1970), James Richardson (1975), F. B. Pinion (1976), and Trevor Johnson (1991) have noted, the dominant feeling of "The Oxen" is one of wistful regret or poignant loss at the passing of a secure world buttressed by the allied senses of legend, tradition, faith in presiding deity, and community.

Gone now are the sages of the past, those elders whose belief in the conventional pieties and folk traditions gave them a special kind of confidence that Hardy, writing for the second Christmas of a war that was supposed to end before the first, remembers and, indeed, longs for, but cannot entertain. The last of those who knew England before the railway age are dead or dying even as Hardy writes. Appropriately, the Times for December 24th, 1915, reports on page three under the heading "News in Brief" the demise of

Mrs. J. Rowland, of Culmstock, Devon, who . . . , aged 99, could recall the time when it took the stage coaches five days to run between Exeter and London.

Although Hardy was some twenty-four years younger than Mrs. Rowland, he too must have felt like a remnant from an earlier age of faith as the great war raged on, sweeping aside the works of hundreds of years of history and a significant proportion of the next generation.

The central action of the poem, then, is not the kneeling of the oxen but rather the principal speaker's recollection of hearing and believing in this legend, giving the oral text a printed (and therefore, extended) life. The action of the poem is entirely cerebral and speculative — what an anonymous critic in 1918 termed a "Christmas reverie" (Athenaeum, 81) since it exists wholly within the mind of the speaker. In fact, the kneeling of the oxen in instinctual homage to the Saviour is realized only as a reflection of the scene of its first telling, one Christmas Eve when the poem's chief speaker was a child. The devout oxen are regarded from a thrice-distanced perspective. The persona — once as callow and trusting as his fellows who "sat in a flock / By the embers in hearthside ease" — is now a cynical, detached skeptic who both scoffs at and yearns for the faith and innocence he lost with his youth (Complete Poems II: 206.). According to Tom Paulin, "A strong element in this wish to believe is [Hardy's] nostalgia for the rural Anglicanism of his child-hood" (61). Hardy's alterego, the chief speaker who introduces the poem but does not identify himself until the third line, recalls when he was merely another unquestioning member of a tightly-knit social group who respected an elder's word as orally-received law, and honoured the rural traditions embodied in that elder. However, now old himself, the speaker has become an individual — an "I" (lines 10 and 15) rather than a part of the "we" of lines three and five. Writing only a decade after the poem's initial publication, R. W. King rightly assesses "The Oxen"'s most appealing element as its "wistful tenderness and pity for human faiths and failings" (Casebook 104).

The contrast between the modern cynicism of the ninth and tenth lines and the persistent, peasant-like credulity of the eleventh through fourteenth lines suggests a dialectic of conflicting voices coexistent within the poem. To begin with, the persona is really two voices--that of the discomforted, aged reminiscer of "these years" (that is, the opening years of the First World War, when, as the Times' reproduced "Christmas Map for German Homes" so graphically indicated, destiny did not seem to favouring Britain and her Allies), and that of the comfortable child by the communal fire. The other voices of the poem are not so internally divided: these are the elder (who speaks the second line, and by whose authority the persona once believed in the kneeling of the oxen), and the contemporary (who as a child was once in harmony with the persona, but who has grown into a less critical, less sophisticated adult). By implication, the principal voice is that of a man who has grown in perception through education and experiences acquired away from his birth-place, while the contemporary who would urge a nocturnal visit to the "barton by yonder coomb / Our childhood used to know" (lines 11-14) has left behind neither his physical nor his spiritual origins (as suggested by the dialectal words "barton" and "coomb" and the archaic "yonder").

These deliberate regionalisms amounting almost to archaisms are idiosyncratic of Hardy's style; here they serve to defamiliarize the common setting and assist in investing in the oxen a numinous power. This defamiliarization was recognised by C. Day Lewis when he spoke of the poem's possessing "a golden haze of retrospect" (155). The urban, cynical, scientific, rational voice overlays that of a rural, naïve believer who once spoke the Dorset dialect rather than the standard, modern English of his adult counterpart, whose voice contains all the other voices of the poem.

In the authoritative Victorian Poetry and Poetics Houghton and Stange annotate the terms "barton" and "coomb" as "a farmyard" and "a valley between steep hills" (788). However, the sense of the lines requires barn, outbuilding, or stable for "barton," and in fact the term in ten English counties, including Dorset, did mean "A Farm-yard; a rick-yard; the out buildings at the back of a farm-house . . . ." (Wright, 170). Houghton and Stange's error is interesting in that, as Joseph Wright in The English Dialect Dictionary (1898) notes, the term "barton" in Hardy country was "Formerly in very common use, but now [has been] displaced by yard" (175). The term preferred by the peasant (the child who has grown into the narrator's alterego, the unnamed friend designated as "someone") has given place to the term demanded by standard, King's English, and in the process both the specificity of meaning and the authenticity of rural experience have been lost, or at least blurred. Alluding to Moule's Stinsford Church and Parish, J. O. Bailey asserts that he has been able to identify a particular barn as the setting for lines 13 and 14:

The last two stanzas of "The Oxen" are set in Stinsford Parish [where Hardy's heart is buried] near Higher Bockhampton [where still stands the cottage in which the poet was born]. The poem "refers to the 'lonely barton' under the wood on the right, as one turns into the lane leading to Higher Bockhampton."(370)

The poem's title likewise is redolent with archaism, both in the form of the word "oxen" (so different from the regular nominative plural of modern English because it is a rare survivor from Anglo-Saxon) and in the use of these beasts (by 1915 gradually being replaced by the first, small petrol-engined tractors that had superseded the heavy, steam-powered models used only on the larger farms of North America prior to the turn of the century) for pulling wagons and ploughs. The oxen--slow, stolid, massive, and dependable — reinforce both the nature of those who imagine them to be kneeling (the periphrasis of "their strawy pen" of line 6 linking the oxen to the "hearthside ease" of the believers, who are figuratively "a flock" in line 3 rather than merely a "family" or "group") and the local, rural context of the poem suggested by "barton" and "coomb" (the latter preferred to "combe" in Scotland, Northamptonshire, Sussex, Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall).

One senses, however, that it is not just the oxen kneeling that Hardy's persona is "hoping . . . might be so" in the final line of the poem. The image of the supine creatures, the traditional folk belief around which the entire poem is organized, is seen only in the mind's eye; the image is an icon in the older sense of that word--a pictorial representation of an article of faith, something in which to place one's trust. The young Hardy's religious faith was founded on such peasant ' fancies'. Significantly, such an outworn notion is spoken of as 'woven'--"would weave" Hardy substituted for the original "would believe" in revision (Grundy, 8) — as if it were as homespun as the smockfrocks of the Dorset agricultural labourers who work with the oxen in ploughing and harvest. The verb "weave" is characteristic of Hardy's pictorial rhetoric, as he envisages even so abstract a thing as a "fancy" being "fair" and manufactured by humanity over time, the product of patient labour, as if loomed in a Dorset cottage rather than in the mills of modern, technological society. Gradually, as Houghton and Stange have noted, the metaphors of the poem coalesce to suggest the loss "of an earlier state of secure belief and joy," displaced by "disillusioned maturity, of the doubt and despair of the Victorian age" (783). The harmony that existed between mankind and nature, represented by the hearthside "flock" in the first stanza and "the meek mild creatures" in the second, dissolves in a twinkling by the rapid progress of time, as suggested by the rapidity of the ninth line:

u / u / u / / /
"So fair a fancy few would weave . . . ."

The quickened pace of the line owes much to the alliteration of the "f's" and "w's" and to the additional stress that breaks the established, stately iambic tetrameter of the preceding eight lines. The wistful regret that one senses with the word "doubt" (line 8) is intensified by the final, truncated line:

/ u u / / u
"Hoping it might be so."

The iambic pattern adhered to generally throughout the previous fifteen lines dissolves into a nervous, halting trimeter composed of a dactyl, a spondee, and a trochee. The effect is to emphasize the first syllable of "hoping" and the verb "might," neatly matching the sense of the whole poem, which shares the subject of William Dewy's anecdote in chapter 17 of Tess of the D'Urbervilles but not hilarity. The ultimate irony of "The Oxen" lies in the poem's form. A traditional ballad with a simple, ABAB rhyme and four-beat line, the poem seems rough-hewn, rusticated. However, the poem's theme of disillusionment is anti-traditional, setting the speaker apart from those with whom he grew up, for his rationalism divorces him from that shared "personal world of memory" (Perkins, 260) affording him no emotional consolation, but only a hollow, intellectual superiority reflected in his scoffing at the fancy which he credited in childhood and which (despite the effects of materialism and determinism, and of the searing pessimism engendered by the war) haunts him still.

One reader of the Times for December 24th, 1915, must have smiled wryly at the "hearthside ease" of the young comrades-in-arms (iconographic ally presented not by an enduring folk tradition but rather by a crass, ephemeral commercialism) in Tony Purvis's advertisement. The almost sacramental nature of the Bovril preparation emulates (and to a reader as sensitive as Hardy) mocks the Eucharist to be celebrated throughout Christendom this day. "Bovril, Tobacco and Chocolate" have replaced the Trinity and the comforting rubrics of the Anglican service. In the hymn for Christmas which D. L. Lee-Elliott has offered the editor of the Times, "The silent stars are strong" and the righteous "Proclaim the day is near" when "justice shall be throned in might," but in the advertisement embattled youth draw strength from a commercial product, extolled "As a shield against illness, as a protection against cold, as a food for endurance and effort" (page 4).

Certainly, the author of the Wessex Novels (driven out of fiction writing by his reluctance to temper his social and religious convictions) must have been struck by the juxtaposition of his poem, "Hymns for Time of War," and the smugly self-righteous editorial "The Second War Christmas," this last at the top of the very column in which "The Oxen" appears. According to the optimistic editorial writer, the war has miraculously eliminated English xenophobia and class-consciousness. While the English and their gallant Allies, he asserts, have remained true Christians, the enemy have become defenders of an "unfaith," a sham Christianity:

We are, rich and poor, more like brothers, feeling less the separation of classes; and we do not feel the separation of language or nationality from our Allies. The ruined churches of France are our churches; and, like the Belgians, we are exiles from the happier world of the past. In all of us Christendom is fighting against a faith, or an unfaith, of this world, which even if it triumphed for a time, would have no unearthly source of renewal. [page 7]

The enemy, argues the editorialist, have made a mockery of the ancient Christmas traditions, especially the singing of "the old carols of Germany that seem to have been made by Children-Angels," because they have committed themselves to the powers of darkness and destruction; they "do not know that they have, as a nation, departed from the faith."

This somewhat simple-minded and jingoistic justification of the English as the true cross-bearers of the Christian faith has, nevertheless, certain curious correspondences to Hardy's vision of the decline of faith and the force of tradition, and forms an admirable context for a contemporary reading of "The Oxen." Hardy's poem suggests that, rather than one nation having "deserted Christendom," humanity has outgrown its faith in pre-scientific creeds and customs. For the aged poet, "the darkness and the sorrow of this Christmas" are the consequences of the death of this faith, not merely among the Germans but among mankind as a whole. Only in a vision of the past, maintains the poem, can a modern "take part in the everlasting Christmas. . . ." In short, Hardy in reading "The Second War Christmas" would have detected ironies about "faith" and "unfaith" not perceived by the editorial writer himself.

Having pondered how Hardy would have read the original context of "The Oxen," and having walked with him in imagination from the grim realities and ironies of the present age of conflict to see the oxen kneel, one must concur with David Perkins about the poignantly ironic position in which the ex-countryman persona finds himself:

If the ease based on unthinking must be rejected, the feeling of isolation stemming from a tragic view still remains, and with it the uneasiness which a sense of being different provokes. . . . instead of seeing more than his fellows, the gloomy protagonist of his poetry may see less. He may be in some way deprived, crippled, and incapable of access to realms of truth which would bring joy if known. (261)

The speaker, having replaced the instinct of his fellows and of the kindred oxen with scientific reasoning and secular knowledge, stands uneasily in the gloom, outside the charmed circle of the communal hearthside, not believing but desperately wanting to believe in order to be at one with the community he abandoned and participate in the "rite of memory. He is haunted by the ghost of his own division, and when he listens for signs he hears the echoes of his own listening and calls them the universe's belief in him" (Richardson, 110).

Related Materials

References

The Catalogue of the Ida O. Folsom Sale. New York: American Galleries, 6 and 7 December 1932, page 39.

Firor, Ruth A. Folkways in Thomas Hardy. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1931.

Grundy, Isobel. "Hardy's Harshness," The Poetry of Thomas Hardy, ed. Patricia Clements and Juliet Grindle. London and Plymouth: Vision Press, 1980.

Hardy, Thomas. The Complete Poetical Works. Ed. Samuel Hynes. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984.

Houghton, Walter E., and G. Robert Stange. Victorian Poetry and Poetics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959.

King, R. W. "The Lyrical Poems of Thomas Hardy," The London Mercury (December 1925), reprinted in Thomas Hardy Poems: A Casebook.

Lewis, C. Day. "'The Lyrical Poetry of Thomas Hardy': The Warton Lecture on English Poetry, 6 June 1951," Proceedings of the British Academy (1951); reprinted in Thomas Hardy: A Casebook.

Paulin, Tom. Thomas Hardy: The Poetry of Perception. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1975.

Perkins, David. "Hardy and the Poetry of Isolation," English Literary History 26 (1959).

Richardson, James. Thomas Hardy--The Poetry of Necessity. London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Thomas Hardy: A Casebook. Ed. James Gibson and Trevor Johnson. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1979.

Unsigned review. The Athenaeum (January 1918), No. 46251918) on Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses," in Thomas Hardy: A Casebook.

Wright, Thomas. Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English London: George Bell and Sons, 1893) I (A-F).


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Last modified 29 July 2004