Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Poem: Thomas Hardy's "The Oxen"

One more poem for the Christmas break.

Thomas Hardy's "The Oxen" was first published on Christmas Eve, 1915. It was printed in the Times of London, cheek by jowl with news of the horrific conflict that was ravaging Europe; nearby was the advertisement shown below, touting Bovril as the tonic for men in the trenches. The second line refers to the folk belief that farm animals kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve. I have always loved the understatement of this poem, which seems even more poignant in a time when "holiday mix" blares from the speakers in every mall (and war is still ravaging).

 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.

There's an interesting article at The Victorian Web about the poem and its context (including the ad, with its "sacramental" portrayal of Bovril).