A critical reading of Hardy’s celebrated Christmas poem – by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Oxen’ was published on Christmas Eve 1915 in The Times. It is one of Thomas Hardy’s best-loved poems, often anthologised. Below is ‘The Oxen’ with a few words of analysis.
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.
A note about the words in ‘The Oxen’: a ‘barton’ is a farm building, and a ‘coomb’ is a small valley.
In summary, first: Hardy recalls how at midnight on Christmas Eve, as the anniversary of the birth of Christ arrives, he sat with other people by the fire, and they pictured the oxen kneeling down in their ‘strawy pen’, paying homage to the birth of Christ. There is obviously a link with the nativity scene here, where oxen and other animals knelt in the barn where Christ was born, according to legend. Back then, Hardy says, neither he nor any of the other men present (in an inn, perhaps, to see in Christmas Day with a few ales?) thought to doubt the idea that oxen knelt in homage to Christ.
But then, in the third stanza, using fricative alliteration to underscore the sliding away of certainty (‘So fair a fancy few would weave’), Hardy reflects that, nowadays, most people wouldn’t believe in such a thing: this magical sense of the oxen somehow knowing that it is Christmas, and kneeling accordingly in reverence to Jesus, has been lost. Yet, Hardy goes on to say, if one Christmas Eve he was invited to see the oxen kneeling, he would happily go to see them, hoping that such a thing might indeed happen.
‘The Oxen’ reflects a yearning for childhood beliefs which the adult speaker can no longer hold. The poem highlights the yearn to believe, even – or perhaps especially – when we know that we cannot bring ourselves to entertain such beliefs. The specific example of the oxen kneeling might be understood in the broader context of a belief in a deity: Thomas Hardy had lost his religious faith early in life, but remained ‘churchy’ (to use his own word), with a profound affection for the liturgy of the Anglican Church.
The context of the poem is also significant. It was written and published in 1915, during the First World War. The war stripped away many illusions, and people who might have been clinging to a residual belief in old customs and traditions often found themselves becoming disillusioned very quickly. The hopeful note sounded by Hardy’s final line is perhaps at odds with the pessimistic tone of much of his poetry, but makes sense in the context of his fondness for magical and supernatural beliefs as part of rustic cultural traditions.
How do you interpret ‘The Oxen’ – as a hopeful poem (perhaps unusually so for Thomas Hardy) or as one shot through with disillusionment?
To go in search of more of Hardy’s poetry, we recommend The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy (Wordsworth Poetry Library), which is excellent value for money and contains nearly 1,000 pages of Hardy’s poems. For more discussion of Hardy’s work, see our analysis of his heartfelt poem about the death of his first wife, our thoughts on his classic poem ‘Afterwards’, and our pick of his best novels.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.