Thomas Hardy’s The Oxen

The attractions of a Christmas legend, at least for some.

Here’s one to think about tomorrow, just before bedtime – a poem that refers to a country legend that farmyard animals kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve. By the time it was written Thomas Hardy had lost his faith. It encapsulates my attitude to the Christmas story: even though I also don’t believe it happened like it says in the book, it retains a powerful spell.

I’ve been to two nativity plays this year and each time have been struck by what a wonderful tale it is: it has such a rare and affecting combination of humility, reverence and thanks. Then there’s the pathos of a young and blameless family in need.

However, I gather we’re due to be told on Christmas Day by (former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s) Giles Fraser that it was first spun in the form we know it at the prompting of the warlike Roman Emperor Constantine, in an effort to make Christianity respectable enough to be the state religion. The ex-Canon believes it’s effectively propaganda that “obscures the true, radical message of Christmas”: “behind the sweet picture of a baby in a manger is a terrifying story about the nature of God and Man” (I can’t help picturing a Doc Marten shoe emerging from a black cassock to stomp on a tiny papier maché cow). Anyhow, I’m not sure we should tell the tinies.

Back to the poem. Over the years I’ve been increasingly enjoying the unfashionable clunkiness of Hardy’s verse: poetry as jolie laide, nicely defined somewhere on the web as where ‘features are not pretty in conventional terms, but nevertheless have a distinctive harmony or charm.’

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 believe
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve
“Come; see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder comb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

(The image is of Gauguin’s Christmas Night (The Blessing of the Oxen)).

Merry Christmas!

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6 thoughts on “Thomas Hardy’s The Oxen

    Shona Allen
    December 23, 2011 at 14:47

    Howard Blake (composer of ‘Walking in the Air’) wrote a beautiful, simple, setting of this poem for his song-cycle ‘All God’s Creatures’ written for Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra. It was performed at Guildford Cathedral in 1995 by massed children’s choirs from across Surrey. I don’t know if there’s a recording of it. It’s absolutely gorgeous and VERY Christmassy.

    • Gaw
      December 24, 2011 at 09:46

      Thanks for the tip Shona. It sounds wonderful and I shall look it up.

    December 23, 2011 at 17:49

    Years ago a cousin from the back of beyond brought his fiance to visit us. She was a devout Catholic. We took her round our farm and she saw a cow on its knees in the process of getting up. She said she had heard on Christmas Day all the cattle went on their knees – and she did believe it.

    What you say about the Nativity story is true – it is totally winning. Also, when acted, you can put in dozens of parts – shepherds, sheep, 3 kings and their train, animals. I used to be an atheist grouch at this time of year, but it’s much nicer to surrender to the Christians. They’ve got the story, they’ve got the music, they’ve got the food. I don’t know if there is any secular song that can reach the solemn joyfulness of a Christmas carol like Joy to the World.

    • Gaw
      December 24, 2011 at 09:47

      The potential for participation in the nativity story hadn’t occurred to me, but it’s an excellent observation – how many other plays have parts suitable for an entire primary school?

    December 24, 2011 at 07:04

    Both poem and painting have rare, rustic beauty. I shall check out Howard Blake’s choral version, Shona – and look out for cows on their knees tomorrow, Rosie… Merry Christmas, Gaw!

    • Gaw
      December 24, 2011 at 09:49

      We don’t have too many cows in this part of London but I shall be keeping a close eye on the squirrels.

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