Saturday, 5 December 2015

Centenary of Thomas Hardy's poem "The Oxen"

    One hundred years ago in 1915, probably during December, the celebrated novelist and poet Thomas Hardy sat by the dying embers at his house Max Gate, near Dorchester pondering the horrors of World War 1, tending his wounded spirit. He summoned up remembrances of country life before industrialised conflict and blood-soaked battlefields had torn apart so many dreams. He recalled his childhood, in a village nearby, in a culture imbued with simple churchgoing.  He was again sitting among children round a warmer fire, listening to an elder of the parish church talk about the reverence of the Holy Stable, how even the huge oxen, castrated male animals of great patience and power, kneeled to the Infant King in the crib.  

    Hardy revisits his thoughts, as a child, familiar and entranced as he was by animals and the countryside. He admires the meek and mild (so opposite to the new world of brute force).  He notes bitterly that few people, in 1915, would "weave such a yarn" having lost the imaginative and visionary powers to conjure up a powerful spiritual vision for children, in poetic words.  

    He yearns for this same belief, in his heart. Perhaps a bit disingenuously, he is carried away by poetic license. For Hardy had chosen John Stuart Mill's atheism even as his mourned wife, Emma, had chosen faith up to her death, in 1912.   Being a kind of visionary, he sensed that religion would be shattered by this Great War.

For Christians today, faith is still real : they can use poetic license about it.  All Nature does bend the knee to the Infant King - who made it. 

                                               The Oxen (1915)  by Thomas Hardy
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.

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