Thomas Hardy is remembered today mostly for his novels. In their narrative power and realism, they set the stage for the great novels of the twentieth century. The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d’Ubervilles, and Jude the Obscure, in my view, mark the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of a century of disenchantment, when humanity’s optimism and self-confidence were shattered by world wars and unspeakable genocide and other atrocities. Hardy possessed the soul of Greek tragedy, as he wove his beautiful novels of inexorable fate and fragile humanity.
It may be a surprise, then, to discover that sometimes setting aside the vocation of a novelist, especially following the devastatingly negative reviews of his fiction, Hardy turned wholly to poetry for the remainder of his life. And, in addition to stark verse, such as “God’s Funeral,” one discovers his Christmas poem, “The Oxen.”
If there is a poem in the English language that better demonstrates our yearning for lost enchantment, I do not know it.
Taking us into a little flock of people gathered on a Christmas Eve beside a dying fire, perhaps in a country cottage or tavern, we are transported from the realm of sophisticated modern skepticism to a world where wonders linger. Hardy lays aside his mask of tragedy, longing for the most divine comedy of all, revealing his heart, and, I believe, revealing the wavering, struggling heart of so many of us.
We come to these tinseled days surrounded by carols and stories of long ago, by gospels that tell us we once “beheld wonders” rather than just “saw things,” by ghostly fancies by Charles Dickens that promise that change is possible even for the weathered soul, and we feel awakened within us that strange “feathered” thing called “hope,” of which Emily Dickinson wrote, which has a way of slipping-in where beliefs struggle to get through. Kisses under mistletoe remind us that romance outlasts the weariness of the flesh. Lights and glitter and gifts given remind us that joy is possible still. And children, amazed at the antics of snowmen and elves, awaken within us memories of when we were young too, of lying awake late into the night, listening to hear the reindeer on the roof before we slept.
Nestled within all of the combination of ancient Christian teachings and old pagan myths and childhood reminiscence, patched together into this most improbable festival, lies the simple story also wrapped in swaddling clothes, reminding us that only the impossible is big enough to redeem our lives: God’s power is revealed in the most vulnerable act imaginable. “Unto us a savior has been born.”
Thus Mr. Hardy wrote his poem, “The Oxen,” which I leave with you as a Christmas gift.
By Henry 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 a lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know.”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
Amen. And Merry Christmas.