That Hardy's mother related this old folk tradition is mentioned by both F. B. Pinion in A Commentary on the Poems of Thomas Hardy (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1976), page 133, and J. O. Bailey in The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970) 370. An earlier allusion by Hardy to "the belief still held in remote parts hereabout, that the cattle kneel at a particular moment in the early hours of every Christmas morning just at, or after 12" occurs in his 2 April 1898 letter "To Edmund Gosse" (Collected Letters 2). Although "The Oxen" was in the same "puny MSS" (Collected Letters 5: 144) that contained three pages of the 1881 short story "What the Shepherd Saw," it seems likely that Hardy composed the poem only shortly before publication, for also in the ms. that Hardy's wife sent to the Red Cross auction in January, 1916, was the original draft of "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations'," a work that Hardy himself dated 18 January 1916 and that was published on 29 January of that same year in the Saturday Review, according to J. O. Bailey (421).

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