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“The amusement of the dead––at our errors, or at our wanting to live on. Xmas Day 1890”: Thomas Hardy’s Christmas Verse

December 25, 2009

 

Cover of a book well worth the buying. Click on it for a trip to Amazon.com.

 

It is Christmas yet again—the thing will not yet stop coming—and I bethought myself to gather together here, on this day, a number of poems on the theme by Thomas Hardy. Anyone who has visited The Era of Casual Fridays knows that Hardy turns up often enough in these (web) pages. I, at any rate, cannot get over him, nor want to, so congenial do I find his turn of mind. The entry that follows shall take the form of a proper commonplace book, with a few annotations offered along the way, for what service they may be.

The amusement of the dead—at our errors, or at our wanting to live on. Xmas Day 1890.” —from Thomas Hardy’s ‘Poetical Matter’ Notebook, edited by Pamela Dalziel and Michael Millgate (Oxford, 2009).

I just picked up a copy of the latter volume, which makes for very good reading. It is a curious document: scattered fragments of poems, observations, ideas for poems or plays, scraps of verse or bits from the papers that Hardy found of interest. Above I set down a Christmas observation, which lays out my coordinates today. But I will provide here one other item from the Poetical Matter notebook, unrelated to Christmas, before getting on with the poetry—for no better reason, I suppose, than that it so typifies, for me, Thomas Hardy: “Tragic drama. Farmer has horse on wh. he wins steeplechases. Backs him heavily for moonlight ride. Horse does not win. Owner at night in stable treats him cruelly. Another man enters, strikes farmer for his cruelty & kills him, leaving him lying beside the horse. Man hanged. (Dec 1890).” I like this for its gravity, its irony, its hatred of cruelty to animals, and for a certain intimation that leaves me certain Hardy thought the man was hanged unjustly.

 

Boer guerrillas during the Second Boer War (photographer unknown).

 

A CHRISTMAS GHOST-STORY

South of the Line, inland from far Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies—your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: “I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?
And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking ‘Anno Domini’ to the years?
Near twenty-hundred liveried thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died.”
Christmas-eve 1899.

This poem concerns the Boer War of 1899-1902, the so-called Second Anglo-Boer War. Durban, of course, is a city in South Africa, the second largest city, at present anyway. Canopus, our Wikipedians tell us, “is the brightest star in the southern constellation of Carina and Argo Navis, and the second brightest star in the night-time sky, after Sirius. Since Canopus is so far south in the sky, it never rises in mid- or far-northern latitudes; in theory the northern limit of visibility is latitude 37°18′ north.” In short, the star is not visible from this dead soldier’s native England, estranging him all the more on this weird Christmas Day: a mouldering soldier, not a birth. An un-Holy Ghost-story.

CHRISTMAS IN THE ELGIN ROOM:
BRITISH MUSEUM: EARLY LAST CENTURY

 

Metope from the Elgin marbles depicting a Centaur and a Lapith fighting.

 

“What is the noise that shakes the night,
And seems to soar to the Pole-star height?”
—“Christmas bells,
The watchman tells
Who walks this hall that blears us captives with its blight.”

“And what, then, mean such clangs, so clear?”
“—’Tis said to have been a day of cheer,
And source of grace
To the human race
Long ere their woven sails winged us to exile here.

“We are those whom Christmas overthrew
Some centuries after Pheidias knew
How to shape us
And bedrape us
And to set us in Athena’s temple for men’s view.

“O it is sad now we are sold—
We gods! for Borean people’s gold,
And brought to the gloom
Of this gaunt room
Which sunlight shuns, and sweet Aurore but enters cold.

 

Statuary from the east pediment of the Parthenon. Part of the collection of Parthenon Marbles on display at the British Museum in London.

 

“For all these bells, would I were still
Radiant as on Athenai’s Hill.”
—“And I, and I!”
The others sigh,
“Before this Christ was known, and we had men’s good will.”

Thereat old Helios could but nod,
Throbbed, too, the Ilissus River-god,
And the torsos there
Of deities fair,
Whose limbs were shards beneath some Acropolitan clod:

Demeter too, Poseidon hoar,
Persephone, and many more
Of Zeus‘ high breed,—
All loth to heed
What the bells sang that night which shook them to the core.
1905 and 1926.

 

Section of a frieze from the Elgin Marbles.

 

The reference here is to the so-called Elgin Marbles, sometimes also called the Parthenon Marbles. Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799–1803, quite dubiously obtained permission from the Ottoman authorities to remove the pieces mentioned in the above poem from Greece, and during the first decade or so of the 19th century, Elgin’s agents removed a large portion of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, transporting them by sea to Britain, where the acquisition, if acquisition it can be called, stirred up a bit of controversy, with some of his harshest critics accusing Lord Elgin of looting and vandalism. The Parliament ultimately vindicated Elgin, and allocated funds to purchase the pieces in 1816, afterward placing them on display in the British Museum. One can gather, from reading this poem, some sense of where Hardy stood, I suppose, with respect to Lord Elgin, and with respect as well to the larger business of the British empire, in the discourse of which enterprise this poem registers a queer anecdote.

THE OXEN

 

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.
1915.

This poem appeared first in The Times for 24 December 1915, with a note appended—as Samuel Hynes, Hardy’s editor, points out—indicating that no copyright to the poem was reserved: the poet cast it at once into the public domain, some eight months after the Second Battle of Ypres (70,000 Allied casualties), in which the German army had deployed 160 tons of chlorine gas. Hardy later collected the poem in his 1917 volume Moments of Vision, the contents of which dated, in composition, almost entirely from the early war years (again, according to Hynes).

For what it is worth to say so—not much at all, really—this is perhaps my least favorite of Hardy’s poems on the Christmas theme. Though I must say it catches quite well what Hardy would call, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, at least one aspect of “the ache of modernity.” (In fact, Hardy draws on the same folk-belief about the oxen in Tess: see chapter 17 of the novel.) My problem is doubtless that I’m rather too cold to feel the force of the poem, outside (say) the context of its publication in 1915. I can never recall a time when I felt touched by a religious sentiment of any kind whatsoever, let alone the sort evoked here—though, in truth, I do recall a time when I believed in such extra-Xian adjuncts as Santa Claus (self-interest motivated that belief, no doubt; though, come to think of it—and I speak here as a Pragmatist—what belief is not “motivated” in some way or another?). What I remember most vividly from the church of my own early youth is a certain aroma—the wood of the pews in the sanctuary, I think it was—and how I once spooked myself, wandering off alone, perhaps at the age of 4 or 5, and opening the door to the boiler-room: it was very dark and deep, though not lovely. So much for my own nostalgia, at least as regards “manger-lore” and the merely religious side of Xmas (Biblically authorized or not). [N.B. post-facto, as of 1/5/10: My remarks in passing about “The Oxen” occasioned a lengthy exchange with two friends of the show, as the saying goes; for which see the comments section below. I shall summarize my own views here, as they emerged from that exchange. We can, I believe, say non-controversially that: 1) On internal evidence—namely, Hardy’s dating of the poem in 1915 to give particular force to the phrase “in these years”—“The Oxen” is an oblique response to the Great War. 2) The poem expresses nostalgia for a time when, for a certain sort of person in rural England, it was still possible to believe not simply in something vaguely religious, but, indeed, in Xianity. Here I am considering the fact that, though the poem concerns children, it is not really written for them, but instead for other Englishmen in a time of war when one might well “hope” that Redemption was at least on offer—against all the evidence to the contrary “in these {war} years.” I am considering also how closely the poem hews to the language of the New Testament of the English Bible (“meek,” “flock,” “kneeling,” etc.), and to the “manger-lore” (so to speak) on which it draws, and which had its start in the book of Luke. 3) Hardy evokes very well the lovely mood of Christmases past—and here, the loveliness includes a peculiarly touching sort of naivete—the better to set that mood over against the unredeemably grim mood of 1915. 4) The poem has in view, to be sure, no particular doctrine within Xianity, but the general enterprise of it, as some rural English families once felt it, round the hearth-side of a Christmas Eve at midnight.]

CHRISTMASTIDE

 

Adoration of the Magi by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 17th century (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio).

 

The rain-shafts splintered on me
As despondently I strode;
The twilight gloomed upon me
And bleared the blank high-road.
Each bush gave forth, when blown on
By gusts in shower and shower,
A sigh, as it were sown on
In handfuls by a sower.
A cheerful voice called, nigh me,
“A merry Christmas, friend!”—
There rose a figure by me,
Walking with townward trend,
A sodden tramp’s, who, breaking
Into thin song, bore straight
Ahead, direction taking
Toward the Casuals’ gate.

“Christmastide” is the (more or less) twelve days spanning from Christmas Eve to January 5, the day before Epiphany. But observance of it varies, of course, amongst the Protestant sects. For the Church of England, it extends through Epiphany on to Candlemas. In the last line, Hardy uses the term “Casual” in O.E.D. sense 9, with particular, and ironical, reference to the last meaning given in the definition that follows (i.e., “casual ward”: a place of refuge for the poor). There’s never “a room at the inn” for them that most deserve it. And now, the O.E.D.: “9. In such phrases as casual labourer, one who does casual or occasional jobs, but has no fixed employment; also casual hand; casual labour; casual poor, those occasionally in a state of poverty; those not receiving regular or systematic relief, esp. those not permanently inmates of workhouses, etc., but admitted for occasional relief (cf. B. 3b); a casual ward, a ward reserved for such occasional relief.” In Japan we’ve begun to speak of “casual labor” yet again, after the old British idiom. My Fridays are not “casual” in this sense. I am among the fortunate, and time-affluent enough to idle away my spare hours on such a web-log as the one you are now reading.

The best thing in this poem is surely the first four lines: “The rain-shafts splintered on me / As despondently I strode; / The twilight gloomed upon me / And bleared the blank high-road.” “Splintered on,” “gloomed,” and “bleared”: three verbs (or a phrasal verb in one case) seldom, if ever, encountered—let alone all at a blow. In fact, the O.E.D. records no instances of “blear” as a verb after the 19th century, and most of the instances it cites date from much earlier. I should not think it impossible that, in this parable of a poem, Hardy may somehow have his way—as in the lines, “Each bush gave forth, when blown on / By gusts in shower and shower, / A sigh, as it were sown on / In handfuls by a sower—with the much-fabled parables of the sower, as in, for example, Matthew 13: 10-35, all or many of which have to do with poverty, the poor, the last being first, and so on (“and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word [of God]):

 

Bernard Madoff. DOJ mugshot.

 

“And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them. Hear ye therefore the parable of the sower. When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side. But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.

 

Former wizard of Enron, Kenneth Lay (1942-2006). DOJ mugshot.

 

He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful. But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn. Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened. All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.” Such “secrets,” let us say, as that there ought be no “Casuals’ Gates.” And yet our world is founded upon them. Happy 150 New Years, Bernie Madoff. You shall join Kenneth Lay at another sort of Casuals’ Gate in due course.

 

A soldier with mustard gas burns, suffered during The Great War.

 

CHRISTMAS: 1924

“Peace upon earth!” was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We’ve got as far as poison-gas.
1924.

This one hardly needs (or bears) commentary, though I do briefly discuss it elsewhere in The Era of Casual Fridays and consider it well worth committing to memory. What strikes me most, from a poetical point of view, is the bitterly disjunctive (or ironic) rhyme in that thoroughly terminal couplet: “years of mass / poison gas.” This is a quatrain with a sting in its tail.

THE PAPHIAN BALL
ANOTHER CHRISTMAS EXPERIENCE OF THE MELLSTOCK QUIRE

We went our Christmas rounds once more,
With quire and viols as therefore.

 

Title page for “Under the Greenwood Tree.”

 

Our path was near by Rushy-Pond,
Where Egdon-Heath outstretched beyond.

There stood a figure against the moon,
Tall, spare, and humming a weirdsome tune.

“You tire of Christian carols,” he said:
“Come and lute at a ball instead.

“’Tis to your gain, for it ensures
That many guineas will be yours.

“A slight condition hangs on’t, true,
But you will scarce say nay thereto:

“That you go blindfold; that anon
The place may not be gossiped on.”

They stood and argued with each other:
“Why sing from one house to another

“These ancient hymns in the freezing night,
And all for nought? ‘Tis foolish, quite!”

“—’Tis serving God, and shunning evil:
Might not elsedoing serve the devil?”

“But grand pay!” . . . They were lured by his call,
Agreeing to go blindfold all.

They walked, he guiding, some new track,
Doubting to find the pathway back.

In a strange hall they found them when
They were unblinded all again.

Gilded alcoves, great chandeliers,
Voluptuous paintings ranged in tiers,

In brief, a mansion large and rare,
With rows of dancers waiting there.

 

Thomas Hardy

 

They tuned and played; the couples danced;
Half-naked women tripped, advanced,

With handsome partners footing fast,
Who swore strange oaths, and whirled them past.

And thus and thus the slow hours wore them:
While shone their guineas heaped before them.

Drowsy at length, in lieu of the dance
While Shepherds watched . . .” they bowed by chance;

And in a moment, at a blink,
There flashed a change; ere they could think

The ball-room vanished and all its crew:
Only the well-known heath they view—

The spot of their crossing overnight,
When wheedled by the stranger’s sleight.

There, east, the Christmas dawn hung red,
And dark Rainbarrow with its dead

Bulged like a supine negress’ breast
Against Clyffe-Clump’s faint far-off crest.

Yea; the rare mansion, gorgeous, bright,
The ladies, gallants, gone were quite.

The heaped-up guineas, too, were gone
With the gold table they were on.

“Why did not grasp we what was owed!”
Cried some, as homeward, shamed, they strode.

Now comes the marvel and the warning:
When they had dragged to church next morning,

With downcast heads and scarce a word,
They were astound at what they heard.

Praises from all came forth in showers
For how they’d cheered the midnight hours.

“We’ve heard you many times,” friends said,
“But like that never have you played!

“Rejoice, ye tenants of the earth,
And celebrate your Saviour’s birth

“Never so thrilled the darkness through,
Or more inspired us so to do!” . . .

—The man who used to tell this tale
Was the tenor-viol, Michael Mail;

Yes; Mail the tenor, now but earth!—
I give it for what it may be worth.

Had Nathaniel Hawthorne written poetry, and on the occasion of Christmas, he might well have produced such an artifact as this; but he didn’t. And I cannot help feeling a bit of “Young Goodman Brown” behind this weird poem. “Paphian” is an adjective, as the O.E.D. tells us, connoting things of or associated with Paphos, or Venus. The meaning engaged here is obviously the primary one: “Of or relating to love and sexual desire; esp. of, relating to, or engaging in illicit sexual acts, prostitution, etc.” And here we have to do with matter covered in one of Hardy’s novels: “UNDER THE GREENWOOD TREE or THE MELLSTOCK QUIRE, A RURAL PAINTING OF THE DUTCH SCHOOL.” The preface to that novel begins as follows: “This story of the Mellstock Quire and its old established west-gallery musicians, with some supplementary descriptions of similar officials in Two on a Tower, A Few Crusted Characters, and other places, is intended to be a fairly true picture, at first hand, of the personages, ways, and customs which were common among such orchestral bodies in the villages of fifty or sixty years ago.”

I’ll not pause here to consider such details in the poem as that “negress’ breast,” though the racial specificity likely underscores the air of the erotically forbidden that hangs about the poem. But I will point out that Rainbarrow and Clyffe-Clump are both near Hardy’s native Dorchester, and that Egdon-Heath and Rushy Pond stand also nearby. Michael Mail, by the way, figures in the novel to which this poem stands as a kind of appendix.

 

The page in question, from "Under the Grenwood Tree."

 

Consider the following passage from the novel: ‘When the expectant stillness consequent upon the exclamation had nearly died out of them all, an increasing light made itself visible in one of the windows of the upper floor.  It came so close to the blind that the exact position of the flame could be perceived from the outside.  Remaining steady for an instant, the blind went upward from before it, revealing to thirty concentrated eyes a young girl, framed as a picture by the window architrave, and unconsciously illuminating her countenance to a vivid brightness by a candle she held in her left hand, close to her face, her right hand being extended to the side of the window.  She was wrapped in a white robe of some kind, whilst down her shoulders fell a twining profusion of marvellously rich hair, in a wild disorder which proclaimed it to be only during the invisible hours of the night that such a condition was discoverable.  Her bright eyes were looking into the grey world outside with an uncertain expression, oscillating between courage and shyness, which, as she recognized the semicircular group of dark forms gathered before her, transformed itself into pleasant resolution. Opening the window, she said lightly and warmly—“Thank you, singers, thank you!” Together went the window quickly and quietly, and the blind started downward on its return to its place.  Her fair forehead and eyes vanished; her little mouth; her neck and shoulders; all of her.  Then the spot of candlelight shone nebulously as before; then it moved away. “How pretty!” exclaimed Dick Dewy. “If she’d been rale wexwork she couldn’t ha’ been comelier,” said Michael Mail.’

Suffice it to say, in conclusion, that erotic and devotional motives are inextricably entangled, whether in marriage or out of it. Which fact merely takes us back to Hawthorne and his Scarlet Letter. A very Merry Xmas to you all from The Era of Casual Fridays. For a link to Hardy’s Complete Poetry, click here.

 

Adminstrator of the blog, on the platform in Kyoto Station. Photo by Daria & John.

 

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. December 26, 2009 5:17 PM

    Must say I was quite surprised to read of “religious sentiment” (or the lack thereof) being a likely index to one’s feelings about Hardy’s beautiful poem “The Oxen,” certainly my favourite of those collected here!

    For a start, I think the truly religious would object that this whole story about the animals kneeling is one of those vulgar, folkloric accretions that all “true” religions tend to pick up, and that first discredits them in the eyes of the learned, and ultimately in the eyes of everybody. I grew up in England in the 1970s and 80s, had to go to church (Baptist) and Sunday School every Sunday, and never heard a word of this tradition, interestingly. In fact it was the poem that introduced me to it, years later: “So fair a fancy few would weave in these years.”

    Come to that, it would be interesting to know how widely-believed / diffused this legend was. Perhaps not very. I don’t remember it featuring in Christmas iconography.

    But this is a bit tangential. My real point is that the poem is surely more about imagination and trust than “religious sentiment” as such. And I think the legend of Santa Claus bringing presents, though widespread only quite recently, and though horribly commercialised and Disneyfied today, is actually very apropos. Surely children believe in Santa not just because of “self-interest” but because the idea serves an imaginative need, and because, most of all, their parents assure them that there is indeed such a person. Add the fact that their parents know perfectly well that the whole thing is a fiction, and that they are essentially lying, and we’re getting close to my understanding of the central thrust of the poem.

    Actually I began to disbelieve in Santa around the age of 7 or 8, and began to ask pointed questions. And I still remember my mother taking me aside to say “Look, you’re right–there is no Santa. Your father and I leave the presents. But please pretend to believe there is, because your [younger] sister and brother still believe in Santa.” So I became an accessory to the fiction, as I am now again as a parent. What strikes me about this in retrospect is that in casting doubts on the genuine existence of Santa I was actually acting against my own self-interest in some ways: better to at least PRETEND to believe, and to reap the rewards. But of course I thought it was a very cool thing to be sceptical and “knowing.” And equally of course, now I’m in my 40s I would love to be able to believe in Santa as I did as a little child–if only for one Christmas! This seems to me pretty close to the sort of narrative of life gestured at in poem.

    • December 27, 2009 1:55 PM

      Dave,

      Thank you. And good to see you here.

      I fear we will not agree as to the *major* theme of “The Oxen,” as doubtless you will have expected from our Monday chats. You write: “My real point is that the poem is surely more about imagination and trust than ‘religious sentiment’ as such.” I certainly see how that argument might be made.

      But “The Oxen” announces itself as a Christmas poem, about beliefs (folkloric or otherwise) associated not merely with religious sentiments, but with specifically “Christian” ones. E.g: Surely no such children’s tale as this one could have been told in pre-Christian rural England. (That is, that on 12/24 oxen knelt in honor of, well, the Christ. I do not think the Winter Solstice, say, had this kind of meaning in pre-Xian England, though by all means correct me if I am wrong: I haven’t pursued the matter, but will when I get back to Kyoto and our 3-vol edition of Hardy’s poems, edited by Tyne, who often gives some account of these matters in his notes.) The fact that this particular belief, whose currency now has almost entirely to do with Hardy’s having composed this poem, was not in the England of his youth widespread seems unimportant, or beside the point––to me anyway.

      But to the poem again. The children in the poem are remembered as a “flock”; their adult interlocutor must figure then, fancifully, as a kind of “pastor” (all tropes borrowed from Xianity); and he has told them that even the oxen “kneel” in honor of what can only be, on Xmas Eve, the birth of the Redeemer. No?

      And now we see Hardy, in 1905, “hoping” it might all be so. Now, he cannot be hoping, as an adult, that the oxen kneel. The “hope” for any adult thinking of such quaint traditions as this must be engaged not by the “accidents” of the tradition (whether or not oxen kneel) but by the “substance” of it: that the kneeling was occasioned by the advent of the Christ on, yes, Christmas. And that this Advent betokened a world of promise. You speak of “imagination and trust”; I would speak instead of “nostalgia” for a world in which such traditions still had their “cash value,” which means (pragmatically): their sense of a world full of promise, even unto immortality.

      I am also much much likely than you to blur the distinctions between folkloric beliefs and “proper” religions, though I would make some practical exception for institutional “religions,” notwithstanding that these are full of lore that, to an outsider, seem “superstitious,” “folkloric,” etc. Much depends (pragmatically) on your point of view. Are you inside one religion gazing out at another? Then you will be much more likely to treat its belief systems as “superstitious,” folkloric, queer, strange, wrong, or whatever.

      Now, I am out of religion altogether and cannot help but regard such matter as the Eucharist as the maddest of superstitions, and the “manger” tales & the Magi tales of frankincense and myrrh, as we find them in the English Bible (in Luke & Matthew), as “folkloric.” And for that matter, the Xians laid their systems (and calendar) over ones they considered heathen or pagan (cf. again the poem above about the Elgin marbles). Xmas and Easter are aligned with the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, more or less. And there were all manner of traditions associated with blood sacrifice in the name of redemption, and of the magical power of blood, in the part of the world Paul of Tarsus came from. Etc.

      As to motivations of “self interest” in any sort of belief, whether in Santa Claus or kneeling oxen or the Virgin Birth, or Transubstantiation, this has to do not with “conscious” & “crass” sorts of “self-interest,” but in what those beliefs do for you if you carry them into the world of your experience: you get what the pragmatist Wm. James calls (completely without disdain) a “moral holiday,” and it is in our “interest” to enjoy these when and if we can. Here he is in “Pragmatism,” dealing with matters not at all unrelated to religious sentiments (the caps are in the original). You can see how he, or rather pragmatism, deals with the ideas of “truth” and “belief.” I single out for your scrutiny the last paragraph in the passage, though the whole of it is good:

      “Let me pass to a very cognate philosophic problem, the QUESTION of DESIGN IN NATURE. God’s existence has from time immemorial been held to be proved by certain natural facts. Many facts appear as if expressly designed in view of one another. Thus the woodpecker’s bill, tongue, feet, tail, etc., fit him wondrously for a world of trees with grubs hid in their bark to feed upon. The parts of our eye fit the laws of light to perfection, leading its rays to a sharp picture on our retina. Such mutual fitting of things diverse in origin argued design, it was held; and the designer was always treated as a man-loving deity.

      “The first step in these arguments was to prove that the design existed. Nature was ransacked for results obtained through separate things being co-adapted. Our eyes, for instance, originate in intra- uterine darkness, and the light originates in the sun, yet see how they fit each other. They are evidently made FOR each other. Vision is the end designed, light and eyes the separate means devised for its attainment.

      “It is strange, considering how unanimously our ancestors felt the force of this argument, to see how little it counts for since the triumph of the darwinian theory. Darwin opened our minds to the power of chance-happenings to bring forth ‘fit’ results if only they have time to add themselves together. He showed the enormous waste of nature in producing results that get destroyed because of their unfitness. He also emphasized the number of adaptations which, if designed, would argue an evil rather than a good designer. Here all depends upon the point of view. To the grub under the bark the exquisite fitness of the woodpecker’s organism to extract him would certainly argue a diabolical designer.

      “Theologians have by this time stretched their minds so as to embrace the darwinian facts, and yet to interpret them as still showing divine purpose. It used to be a question of purpose AGAINST mechanism, of one OR the other. It was as if one should say “My shoes are evidently designed to fit my feet, hence it is impossible that they should have been produced by machinery.” We know that they are both: they are made by a machinery itself designed to fit the feet with shoes. Theology need only stretch similarly the designs of God. As the aim of a football-team is not merely to get the ball to a certain goal (if that were so, they would simply get up on some dark night and place it there), but to get it there by a fixed MACHINERY OF CONDITIONS—the game’s rules and the opposing players; so the aim of God is not merely, let us say, to make men and to save them, but rather to get this done through the sole agency of nature’s vast machinery. Without nature’s stupendous laws and counterforces, man’s creation and perfection, we might suppose, would be too insipid achievements for God to have designed them.

      “This saves the form of the design-argument at the expense of its old easy human content. The designer is no longer the old man-like deity. His designs have grown so vast as to be incomprehensible to us humans. The WHAT of them so overwhelms us that to establish the mere THAT of a designer for them becomes of very little consequence in comparison. We can with difficulty comprehend the character of a cosmic mind whose purposes are fully revealed by the strange mixture of goods and evils that we find in this actual world’s particulars. Or rather we cannot by any possibility comprehend it. The mere word ‘design’ by itself has, we see, no consequences and explains nothing. It is the barrenest of principles. The old question of WHETHER there is design is idle. The real question is WHAT is the world, whether or not it have a designer—and that can be revealed only by the study of all nature’s particulars.

      “Remember that no matter what nature may have produced or may be producing, the means must necessarily have been adequate, must have been FITTED TO THAT PRODUCTION. The argument from fitness to design would consequently always apply, whatever were the product’s character. The recent Mont-Pelee eruption, for example, required all previous history to produce that exact combination of ruined houses, human and animal corpses, sunken ships, volcanic ashes, etc., in just that one hideous configuration of positions. France had to be a nation and colonize Martinique. Our country had to exist and send our ships there. IF God aimed at just that result, the means by which the centuries bent their influences towards it, showed exquisite intelligence. And so of any state of things whatever, either in nature or in history, which we find actually realized. For the parts of things must always make SOME definite resultant, be it chaotic or harmonious. When we look at what has actually come, the conditions must always appear perfectly designed to ensure it. We can always say, therefore, in any conceivable world, of any conceivable character, that the whole cosmic machinery MAY have been designed to produce it.

      “Pragmatically, then, the abstract word ‘design’ is a blank cartridge. It carries no consequences, it does no execution. What sort of design? and what sort of a designer? are the only serious questions, and the study of facts is the only way of getting even approximate answers. Meanwhile, pending the slow answer from facts, anyone who insists that there is a designer and who is sure he is a divine one, gets a certain pragmatic benefit from the term—the same, in fact which we saw that the terms God, Spirit, or the Absolute, yield us. ‘Design,’ worthless tho it be as a mere rationalistic principle set above or behind things for our admiration, becomes, if our faith concretes it into something theistic, a term of PROMISE. Returning with it into experience, we gain a more confiding outlook on the future. If not a blind force but a seeing force runs things, we may reasonably expect better issues. This vague confidence in the future is the sole pragmatic meaning at present discernible in the terms design and designer. But if cosmic confidence is right not wrong, better not worse, that is a most important meaning. That much at least of possible ‘truth’ the terms will then have in them.”

      Happy holidays!

      Yours as ever, Mark

      P.S. Henry, if you pass your eyes across this exchange, weigh in, if you’ve the inclination or time. That might add to the pleasure of it all.

  2. December 27, 2009 11:49 PM

    I remember, years ago, hearing the American scholar, Thomas McFarland remark of a lecture: “well he was convincing, but I wasn’t convinced!” I feel something of that in relation to Mark’s reading of the poem.

    By “folkloric” here I suppose I really meant “extra-Biblical”–sure many things in the Bible will strike the non-believer as superstitious etc. Nonetheless, the book claims to be the inspired word of God and hundreds of millions accept it as such. The legend recalled in The Oxen has no such authority behind it.

    Does that matter to a reading of the poem? I think it does. If the “hoping it might be so” means as much as Mark says it means–i.e. that the kneeling of the oxen would actually denote the historical incarnation of Jesus Christ and all the consequences of that fact–then one can only judge that Hardy took an extraordinary approach to expressing his feelings about that (possible) “fact.” I’m struggling to think what a modern analogy might be. How about: “I once heard that after Elvis’s death his favorite jar of peanut butter went missing. I’d love to know that was true, because that would prove he never died, and that he was making suitable preparations for his trip to CIA headquarters. Elvis wouldn’t go anywhere without peanut butter!”

    One of the great things about The Oxen is how much thought it compresses into a few lines, without, however, becoming a “philosophical” poem. Because of its brevity it might be possible to guess that the “elder” didn’t just say the oxen were kneeling, and that he went on to sketch in the significance of that fact, making it a demonstration of God’s great intervention in human affairs. But the poem doesn’t say that, and it would surely be spoilt if it did. Granted, the children knew something about Christmas, the nativity, etc. And they would have connected the kneeling of the oxen with the story of the stable, the shepherds, etc. But I think where I really differ from Mark is that I read Hardy as envying the fact that, to children, the story has an intrinsic beauty NOT burdened by all the theological significance that an adult might bring to it, and I would suggest, further, that that is why Hardy chooses to focus on the clearly apocryphal legend of the kneeling oxen, a beautiful supplementary “fancy” rather than a purported scriptural truth. How different would the poem be if, say, Hardy recalled being told of the virgin birth as a child, believing it, and now, at a time of war, hoping that it might be true? Very different, in my view.

    Perhaps I’m too close to the poem–I feel very close to it–to be altogether objective in my reading. Another memory: I once played Herod in a nativity play. I think most elementary (primary) schools in England still put them on, and the children generally love them, and like the story, without however understanding the larger significance. My daughter has a video of a very multi-ethnic British school class singing the children’s carol, “Away in a manger,” which includes lines like “Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay, / Close by me for ever and love me I pray.” Do parents from other religions object to their children singing such stuff? Apparently not. The children are too young. It’s not difficult to imagine these little Indian and Pakistani kids growing up and thinking “what a lovely story that was, and how wonderful if three kings really came to see a baby in a stable.” I rather hope they do.

    As ever!
    Dave

    • December 28, 2009 2:13 PM

      Hi Dave,

      Yes, we shall agree to differ, here.

      You write: “But I think where I really differ from Mark is that I read Hardy as envying the fact that, to children, the story has an intrinsic beauty NOT burdened by all the theological significance that an adult might bring to it, and I would suggest, further, that that is why Hardy chooses to focus on the clearly apocryphal legend of the kneeling oxen, a beautiful supplementary “fancy” rather than a purported scriptural truth. How different would the poem be if, say, Hardy recalled being told of the virgin birth as a child, believing it, and now, at a time of war, hoping that it might be true? Very different, in my view.”

      I assume, as was the case when I was a small child, and was taken to see what we called “manger scenes,” with the oxen and donkeys & the Magi & Mary & the “baby Jesus” as he was inevitably called;––I assume that, thought not stated, the whole aura of this is surely implied by the folk tale in the poem. And that the children understand it as such. At any rate, all of this was innocently foisted on me in the Methodist Church at the age or 3 or 4, as I sat in the flock listening to the elders.

      I do not see much merit in the Elvis counter-example. The cult of Elvis notwithstanding, he and his peanut butter have nothing whatsoever like the compelling force in a rural English setting of such a tale as Hardy calls to mind, superadded to the “manger” traditions, of oxen keeling on Xmas Eve.

      You say nothing of the William James I reprinted, on the topic of religious sentiments. Do you find it uninteresting or irrelevant? That book was published in 1906, and Hardy was, I think, aware of it, as he was also of Schopenhauer & Darwin of course. There was at the time a British pragmatist named Schiller (cited by James). Whether Hardy knew of him, I do not know.

      But really, reading The Oxen in the context of all of Hardy’s Xmas poems, still you suppose it to have less to do with the story of the nativity than with a quaint folk tale that children would not have felt as “theological” in some sense, but simply as a pretty fancy? I just cannot follow you there. But that is a matter of temperament. I think––or am I wrong?––that you may hold Xianity in higher esteem than I do–not as a believer, mind you, but in other respects. I gather as much by what I might call the slightly “missionary drift” of your last paragraph:

      “My daughter has a video of a very multi-ethnic British school class singing the children’s carol, “Away in a manger,” which includes lines like “Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay, / Close by me for ever and love me I pray.” Do parents from other religions object to their children singing such stuff? Apparently not. The children are too young. It’s not difficult to imagine these little Indian and Pakistani kids growing up and thinking “what a lovely story that was, and how wonderful if three kings really came to see a baby in a stable.” I rather hope they do.”

      I rather hope the Indian and & Pakistani kids do not, even if to them it remains a pretty story. I rather prefer that in American public schools (with some flagrant exceptions) the temper is kept strictly secular. God bless our Constitution for that, at least (& for the 13th, 14th & 15th amendments).

      I rather hope in fact that our world will free itself from Monotheisms of all kinds, whether Muslim or Xian (or, though not a monotheism, of such sometimes militant faiths as Hinduism, too). I’m with Hardy as of 1924: two thousand years of mass have got us as far as poison gas.

      When Xians are kind, they are so not because they are Xian, but because they are kind. My own 46 years in this vale of tears has never offered up evidence to the contrary. Xianity (or Islam) civilizes no-one. There’s as much kindness outside the church as in it, always has been, always will be. Write me down for a Buddhist, if I must choose. But then I don’t have to choose, of course. And I prefer what Dawkins calls a “conspiracy of doves” to any religion I know of.

      FWIW, as they say, I paste in below the following article from the “Victorian Web” site. Some of its minor details I’d shy away from, but its rehearsal of the bibliographic contexts of the poem, and its citation of antecedent legends associated with the nativity (in Milton & Shakespeare), are pertinent and helpful.

      Yours as ever, Dave! And my love to Kaori & Annie,

      Mark (writing from the Quaker city of Brotherly Love, in the midst of 10,000 English professors)

      Now for a shower & then off to the book exhibit.

      +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

      “Image, Allusion, Voice, Dialect, and Irony in Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen” and the Poem’s Original Publication Context”

      Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University (Canada)

      “To write is itself an act of faith. Apart from this, Mr. Hardy comes as near faith, perhaps, as the average man of this unsettled hour.” — The Athenaeum (January 1918)

      In Critical Introduction to the Poems of Thomas Hardy (1991), Trevor Johnson rightly reminds readers of Hardy’s poetry that an awareness of the contemporary context of “The Oxen”–the horrors of trench warfare as conveyed in the British press–does much to inform the meaning of this particular “reverie.”

      The date of this poem has to be taken into account: to any soldier in the trenches who happened to read a copy of The Times for 24 December 1915 in which The Oxen first appeared, the picture of the meek, mild creatures in their strawy pen must have been almost unbearably poignant. Though Hardy’s only reference to the war is the phrase ‘In these years!,’ the second half of the poem reveals his characteristic rejection of easy sentiment. [148]

      Moving from what could have been the first published critical appraisal of the poem’s initial peritext, Johnson glances only momentarily at the folk tradition surrounding the poem before focussing on the implications of Hardy’s emending the original “believe” of the ninth line to “weave” for the final version of the poem as it appeared two years later in Moments of Vision. Although the ramifications of this change are noteworthy, Johnson has failed to see the poem whole, that is, as what King correctly recognizes as “a significant anecdote, chosen or invented, not merely for its own sake, but for its value as a symbol, as a ‘moment of vision’ which gathers up the emotional experience of years” (107). And, King might have added, of centuries of comforting tradition, now shattered by scientific rationalism and the barbarity of the new century’s first great war. Johnson notes how widespread was the belief in the kneeling of the oxen on Christmas Eve –“the diarist, the Reverend Francis Kilvert,” he tells us, “actually met an old man who claimed he had ‘seen the oxen kneeling . . . with the tears running down their faces’ (148).

      Unfortunately, he fails to explore the formidable literary antecedents of “The Oxen.” One should, for example, note the connection between Hardy’s Yuletide offering and John Milton’s ode “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” (1629) redolent with portents attendant upon the birth of Christ:

      Nature in awe to him
      Had dofft her gaudy trim,
      With her great Master so to sympathize . . . . [lines 32-34]

      This conception of the special sanctity of the season of Christ’s birth is in turn a reflection of that rehearsed by Horatio in Hamlet:

      that ever ‘gainst that season comes
      Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated
      The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
      And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
      The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
      No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
      So hallow’d and so gracious is that time. [I, i; 158-164.]

      Even though present-day readers of the poem are prepared to accept that the kneeling of the oxen on Christmas Eve holds some special significance for the poem’s persona, the “gloom” of the last line seems singularly inappropriate. A coherent interpretation must take into account the speaker’s twin attitudes to the folk-myth behind the poem (which becomes first its central image and ultimately its controlling metaphor), the perspective of the principal speaker about his lost innocence, the relationship between the poem’s three voices, and even the stanza form, metrification, and poetic devices that Hardy has employed.

      Published in the Times on Christmas Eve, 1915, the lyric is founded upon the old folk tradition that, as Hardy’s mother told him as a child, the creatures whose ancestors witnessed the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem kneel to commemorate the event every Christmas Eve at midnight. Despite its seasonal setting and publication, on a first reading “The Oxen” seems hardly suggestive of the yuletide cheer one would expect from a poem whose manuscript was described in a 1932 gallery catalogue as “verses for Christmas Eve” (Folsom catalogue cited in Poetical Works, II: 499). However, if one takes into account such seasonal ghost-stories as Dickens’ “Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” in Pickwick Papers (1836) and, of course, A Christmas Carol (1843), a reminiscence about a supernatural event on the night before Christmas may not seem so out of place. As Ruth Firor in Folkways in Thomas Hardy (1931) notes,

      The belief that the animal creation worships at the season of Christ’s birth is familiar and widespread; only those who can see ghosts at Christmas have the power of hearing the cattle, sheep, and horses talk, as they do talk at this holy season. [151]

      Nevertheless, the poem is neither picturesque nor sweetly nostalgic, but aches with a sense of loss and exclusion. “In ‘The Oxen’ the poet looks back regretfully to his boyhood days when he believed in miracles” (Firor 150) and was charmed by the naive folk belief in the kneeling of the oxen. As critics such as R. W. King (1925), Carl J. Webber (1940), C. Day Lewis (1951), Tom Paulin (1975), J. O. Bailey (1970), James Richardson (1975), F. B. Pinion (1976), and Trevor Johnson (1991) have noted, the dominant feeling of “The Oxen” is one of wistful regret or poignant loss at the passing of a secure world buttressed by the allied senses of legend, tradition, faith in presiding deity, and community.

      Gone now are the sages of the past, those elders whose belief in the conventional pieties and folk traditions gave them a special kind of confidence that Hardy, writing for the second Christmas of a war that was supposed to end before the first, remembers and, indeed, longs for, but cannot entertain. The last of those who knew England before the railway age are dead or dying even as Hardy writes. Appropriately, the Times for December 24th, 1915, reports on page three under the heading “News in Brief” the demise of

      ‘Mrs. J. Rowland, of Culmstock, Devon, who . . . , aged 99, could recall the time when it took the stage coaches five days to run between Exeter and London.’

      Although Hardy was some twenty-four years younger than Mrs. Rowland, he too must have felt like a remnant from an earlier age of faith as the great war raged on, sweeping aside the works of hundreds of years of history and a significant proportion of the next generation.

      The central action of the poem, then, is not the kneeling of the oxen but rather the principal speaker’s recollection of hearing and believing in this legend, giving the oral text a printed (and therefore, extended) life. The action of the poem is entirely cerebral and speculative — what an anonymous critic in 1918 termed a “Christmas reverie” (Athenaeum, 81) since it exists wholly within the mind of the speaker. In fact, the kneeling of the oxen in instinctual homage to the Saviour is realized only as a reflection of the scene of its first telling, one Christmas Eve when the poem’s chief speaker was a child. The devout oxen are regarded from a thrice-distanced perspective. The persona — once as callow and trusting as his fellows who “sat in a flock / By the embers in hearthside ease” — is now a cynical, detached skeptic who both scoffs at and yearns for the faith and innocence he lost with his youth (Complete Poems II: 206.). According to Tom Paulin, “A strong element in this wish to believe is [Hardy’s] nostalgia for the rural Anglicanism of his child-hood” (61). Hardy’s alterego, the chief speaker who introduces the poem but does not identify himself until the third line, recalls when he was merely another unquestioning member of a tightly-knit social group who respected an elder’s word as orally-received law, and honoured the rural traditions embodied in that elder. However, now old himself, the speaker has become an individual — an “I” (lines 10 and 15) rather than a part of the “we” of lines three and five. Writing only a decade after the poem’s initial publication, R. W. King rightly assesses “The Oxen”‘s most appealing element as its “wistful tenderness and pity for human faiths and failings” (Casebook 104).

      The contrast between the modern cynicism of the ninth and tenth lines and the persistent, peasant-like credulity of the eleventh through fourteenth lines suggests a dialectic of conflicting voices coexistent within the poem. To begin with, the persona is really two voices–that of the discomforted, aged reminiscer of “these years” (that is, the opening years of the First World War, when, as the Times’ reproduced “Christmas Map for German Homes” so graphically indicated, destiny did not seem to favouring Britain and her Allies), and that of the comfortable child by the communal fire. The other voices of the poem are not so internally divided: these are the elder (who speaks the second line, and by whose authority the persona once believed in the kneeling of the oxen), and the contemporary (who as a child was once in harmony with the persona, but who has grown into a less critical, less sophisticated adult). By implication, the principal voice is that of a man who has grown in perception through education and experiences acquired away from his birth-place, while the contemporary who would urge a nocturnal visit to the “barton by yonder coomb / Our childhood used to know” (lines 11-14) has left behind neither his physical nor his spiritual origins (as suggested by the dialectal words “barton” and “coomb” and the archaic “yonder”).

      These deliberate regionalisms amounting almost to archaisms are idiosyncratic in Hardy’s style; here they serve to defamiliarize the common setting and assist in investing in the oxen a numinous power. This defamiliarization was recognised by C. Day Lewis when he spoke of the poem’s possessing “a golden haze of retrospect” (155). The urban, cynical, scientific, rational voice overlays that of a rural, naïve believer who once spoke the Dorset dialect rather than the standard, modern English of his adult counterpart, whose voice contains all the other voices of the poem.

      In the authoritative “Victorian Poetry and Poetics” Houghton and Stange annotate the terms “barton” and “coomb” as “a farmyard” and “a valley between steep hills” (788). However, the sense of the lines requires barn, outbuilding, or stable for “barton,” and in fact the term in ten English counties, including Dorset, did mean “A Farm-yard; a rick-yard; the out buildings at the back of a farm-house . . . .” (Wright, 170). Houghton and Stange’s error is interesting in that, as Joseph Wright in The English Dialect Dictionary (1898) notes, the term “barton” in Hardy country was “Formerly in very common use, but now [has been] displaced by yard” (175). The term preferred by the peasant (the child who has grown into the narrator’s alterego, the unnamed friend designated as “someone”) has given place to the term demanded by standard King’s English, and in the process both the specificity of meaning and the authenticity of rural experience have been lost, or at least blurred. Alluding to Moule’s Stinsford Church and Parish, J. O. Bailey asserts that he has been able to identify a particular barn as the setting for lines 13 and 14:

      ‘The last two stanzas of “The Oxen” are set in Stinsford Parish [where Hardy’s heart is buried] near Higher Bockhampton [where still stands the cottage in which the poet was born]. The poem “refers to the ‘lonely barton’ under the wood on the right, as one turns into the lane leading to Higher Bockhampton.”‘ (370)

      The poem’s title likewise is redolent with archaism, both in the form of the word “oxen” (so different from the regular nominative plural of modern English because it is a rare survivor from Anglo-Saxon) and in the use of these beasts (by 1915 gradually being replaced by the first, small petrol-engined tractors that had superseded the heavy, steam-powered models used only on the larger farms of North America prior to the turn of the century) for pulling wagons and ploughs. The oxen–slow, stolid, massive, and dependable — reinforce both the nature of those who imagine them to be kneeling (the periphrasis of “their strawy pen” of line 6 linking the oxen to the “hearthside ease” of the believers, who are figuratively “a flock” in line 3 rather than merely a “family” or “group”) and the local, rural context of the poem suggested by “barton” and “coomb” (the latter preferred to “combe” in Scotland, Northamptonshire, Sussex, Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall).

      One senses, however, that it is not just the oxen kneeling that Hardy’s persona is “hoping . . . might be so” in the final line of the poem. The image of the supine creatures, the traditional folk belief around which the entire poem is organized, is seen only in the mind’s eye; the image is an icon in the older sense of that word–a pictorial representation of an article of faith, something in which to place one’s trust. The young Hardy’s religious faith was founded on such peasant ‘ fancies’. Significantly, such an outworn notion is spoken of as ‘woven’–“would weave” Hardy substituted for the original “would believe” in revision (Grundy) — as if it were as homespun as the smockfrocks of the Dorset agricultural labourers who work with the oxen in ploughing and harvest. The verb “weave” is characteristic of Hardy’s pictorial rhetoric, as he envisages even so abstract a thing as a “fancy” being “fair” and manufactured by humanity over time, the product of patient labour, as if loomed in a Dorset cottage rather than in the mills of modern, technological society. Gradually, as Houghton and Stange have noted, the metaphors of the poem coalesce to suggest the loss “of an earlier state of secure belief and joy,” displaced by “disillusioned maturity, of the doubt and despair of the Victorian age.” The harmony that existed between mankind and nature, represented by the hearthside “flock” in the first stanza and “the meek mild creatures” in the second, dissolves in a twinkling by the rapid progress of time, as suggested by the rapidity of the ninth line:

      u / u / u / / /
      “So fair a fancy few would weave . . . .”

      The quickened pace of the line owes much to the alliteration of the “f’s” and “w’s” and to the additional stress that breaks the established, stately iambic tetrameter of the preceding eight lines. The wistful regret that one senses with the word “doubt” is intensified by the final, truncated line:

      / u u / / u
      “Hoping it might be so.”

      The iambic pattern adhered to generally throughout the previous fifteen lines dissolves into a nervous, halting trimeter composed of a dactyl, a spondee, and a trochee. The effect is to emphasize the first syllable of “hoping” and the verb “might,” neatly matching the sense of the whole poem, which shares the subject of William Dewy’s anecdote in chapter 17 of Tess of the D’Urbervilles but not the hilarity. The ultimate irony of “The Oxen” lies in the poem’s form. A traditional ballad with a simple, ABAB rhyme and four-beat line, the poem seems rough-hewn, rusticated. However, the poem’s theme of disillusionment is anti-traditional, setting the speaker apart from those with whom he grew up, for his rationalism divorces him from that shared “personal world of memory” (Perkins) affording him no emotional consolation, but only a hollow, intellectual superiority reflected in his scoffing at the fancy which he credited in childhood and which (despite the effects of materialism and determinism, and of the searing pessimism engendered by the war) haunts him still.

      One reader of the Times for December 24th, 1915, must have smiled wryly at the “hearthside ease” of the young comrades-in-arms (iconographic ally presented not by an enduring folk tradition but rather by a crass, ephemeral commercialism) in Tony Purvis’s advertisement [which appeared alongside the poem in The Times]. The almost sacramental nature of the Bovril preparation emulates (and to a reader as sensitive as Hardy) mocks the Eucharist to be celebrated throughout Christendom this day. “Bovril, Tobacco and Chocolate” have replaced the Trinity and the comforting rubrics of the Anglican service. In the hymn for Christmas which D. L. Lee-Elliott has offered the editor of the Times, “The silent stars are strong” and the righteous “Proclaim the day is near” when “justice shall be throned in might,” but in the advertisement embattled youth draw strength from a commercial product, extolled “As a shield against illness, as a protection against cold, as a food for endurance and effort.”

      Certainly, the author of the Wessex Novels (driven out of fiction writing by his reluctance to temper his social and religious convictions) must have been struck by the juxtaposition of his poem, “Hymns for Time of War,” and the smugly self-righteous editorial “The Second War Christmas,” this last at the top of the very column in which “The Oxen” appears. According to the optimistic editorial writer, the war has miraculously eliminated English xenophobia and class-consciousness. While the English and their gallant Allies, he asserts, have remained true Christians, the enemy have become defenders of an “unfaith,” a sham Christianity:

      “We are, rich and poor, more like brothers, feeling less the separation of classes; and we do not feel the separation of language or nationality from our Allies. The ruined churches of France are our churches; and, like the Belgians, we are exiles from the happier world of the past. In all of us Christendom is fighting against a faith, or an unfaith, of this world, which even if it triumphed for a time, would have no unearthly source of renewal.”

      The enemy, argues the editorialist, have made a mockery of the ancient Christmas traditions, especially the singing of “the old carols of Germany that seem to have been made by Children-Angels,” because they have committed themselves to the powers of darkness and destruction; they “do not know that they have, as a nation, departed from the faith.”

      This somewhat simple-minded and jingoistic justification of the English as the true cross-bearers of the Christian faith has, nevertheless, certain curious correspondences to Hardy’s vision of the decline of faith and the force of tradition, and forms an admirable context for a contemporary reading of “The Oxen.” Hardy’s poem suggests that, rather than one nation having “deserted Christendom,” humanity has outgrown its faith in pre-scientific creeds and customs. For the aged poet, “the darkness and the sorrow of this Christmas” are the consequences of the death of this faith, not merely among the Germans but among mankind as a whole. Only in a vision of the past, maintains the poem, can a modern “take part in the everlasting Christmas. . . .” In short, Hardy in reading “The Second War Christmas” would have detected ironies about “faith” and “unfaith” not perceived by the editorial writer himself.

      Having pondered how Hardy would have read the original context of “The Oxen,” and having walked with him in imagination from the grim realities and ironies of the present age of conflict to see the oxen kneel, one must concur with David Perkins about the poignantly ironic position in which the ex-countryman persona finds himself:

      “If the ease based on unthinking must be rejected, the feeling of isolation stemming from a tragic view still remains, and with it the uneasiness which a sense of being different provokes. . . . instead of seeing more than his fellows, the gloomy protagonist of his poetry may see less. He may be in some way deprived, crippled, and incapable of access to realms of truth which would bring joy if known.”

      The speaker, having replaced the instinct of his fellows and of the kindred oxen with scientific reasoning and secular knowledge, stands uneasily in the gloom, outside the charmed circle of the communal hearthside, not believing but desperately wanting to believe in order to be at one with the community he abandoned and participate in the “rite of memory. He is haunted by the ghost of his own division, and when he listens for signs he hears the echoes of his own listening and calls them the universe’s belief in him” (Richardson).

      Related Materials

      “The Oxen”

      Articles that appeared next to Hardy’s “The Oxen” in The Times [of London] on 24 December 1915

      References

      The Catalogue of the Ida O. Folsom Sale. New York: American Galleries, 6 and 7 December 1932, page 39.

      Firor, Ruth A. Folkways in Thomas Hardy. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1931.

      Grundy, Isobel. “Hardy’s Harshness,” The Poetry of Thomas Hardy, ed. Patricia Clements and Juliet Grindle. London and Plymouth: Vision Press, 1980.

      Hardy, Thomas. The Complete Poetical Works. Ed. Samuel Hynes. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984.

      Houghton, Walter E., and G. Robert Stange. Victorian Poetry and Poetics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959.

      King, R. W. “The Lyrical Poems of Thomas Hardy,” The London Mercury (December 1925), reprinted in Thomas Hardy Poems: A Casebook.

      Lewis, C. Day. “‘The Lyrical Poetry of Thomas Hardy’: The Warton Lecture on English Poetry, 6 June 1951,” Proceedings of the British Academy (1951); reprinted in Thomas Hardy: A Casebook.

      Paulin, Tom. Thomas Hardy: The Poetry of Perception. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1975.

      Perkins, David. “Hardy and the Poetry of Isolation,” English Literary History 26 (1959).

      Richardson, James. Thomas Hardy–The Poetry of Necessity. London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

      Thomas Hardy: A Casebook. Ed. James Gibson and Trevor Johnson. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1979.

      Unsigned review. The Athenaeum (January 1918), No. 46251918) on “Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses,” in Thomas Hardy: A Casebook.

      Wright, Thomas. Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English London: George Bell and Sons, 1893) I (A-F).

  3. December 29, 2009 9:52 AM

    Hey Mark,

    The Victorian Web stuff is good–and I accept most of the interpretative material happily. There’s not much talk of the incarnation, apart from the rather far-fetched comparison with Milton’s totally different poem.

    You say: “But really, reading The Oxen in the context of all of Hardy’s Xmas poems, still you suppose it to have less to do with the story of the nativity than with a quaint folk tale that children would not have felt as “theological” in some sense, but simply as a pretty fancy? I just cannot follow you there.”

    But the issue is that children, unless I totally misunderstand them, simply don’t make the sort of distinctions you make here. They live in a world of imagination, not theology, and for them the baby in the manger and the angels and the shepherds have much more to do with the world of fairytales than with doctrines of Original Sin and Atonement. And my final point was that Islamic and Hindu parents understand that to be the case, and therefore don’t (in many cases, at least) object to their offspring singing Christmas carols etc.

    I put my question to you again: would this poem be significantly different if Hardy chose the doctrine of the virgin birth instead of the legend of the kneeling animals? Why did he choose something so unauthorised, peripheral, supplementary, folklorish, ultimately–I think most Christians would say–irrelevant to the Biblical account of Christ’s coming? I think any full response to the poem has to be able to answer this.

    A lively debate–well done Hardy!
    Dave

    • December 29, 2009 12:43 PM

      Dave, my man, this is fun. I shall *compel* Henry to join the debate.

      You write, w/r/t/ me : ‘You say: “But really, reading The Oxen in the context of all of Hardy’s Xmas poems, still you suppose it to have less to do with the story of the nativity than with a quaint folk tale that children would not have felt as “theological” in some sense, but simply as a pretty fancy? I just cannot follow you there.” But the issue is that children, unless I totally misunderstand them, simply don’t make the sort of distinctions you make here. They live in a world of imagination, not theology, and for them the baby in the manger and the angels and the shepherds have much more to do with the world of fairytales than with doctrines of Original Sin and Atonement. And my final point was that Islamic and Hindu parents understand that to be the case, and therefore don’t (in many cases, at least) object to their offspring singing Christmas carols etc.’

      In point of fact, odd though it may sound, I think you do misunderstand the children, though certainly not “totally.” The children understand the “manger” folk-tales, with whatever local & peculiar superadditions, *precisely* in a vaguely religious way. Religious sentiment––the phrase I first used––is what this poem entails: not pretty stories.

      Autobiographical anecdotes are worth only what they are worth for evidence as to what children believe: but I, as a small child, knew perfectly well that all the “manger lore” to which I was subjected (in which category I place the tale of the oxen kneeling) had “religious” (Xian) content. I do not understand, Dave, why you offer what seem to me alternatives of such an extreme nature as to foreclose debate: either the poem has to do with a “pretty fancy,” unrelated to Xianity as experienced by the children, *or else* it must have to do with abstract doctrine (the Atonement, the Virgin Birth, etc.). Dave, I say to you in reply: these are not live alternatives. By the way, and FWIW, *ALL* manger lore carries in its trail the notion of the Virgin Birth, not as Catholic Theologians discuss the matter, but as a vaguely felt “miracle” quite available to children.

      When I, at age 4 or 5, was taken to see the oxen in the “manger scenes,” as we called them, I knew that I was being “invited” (pragmatically) into Xianity. I knew who Mary was. I knew who Joseph was (though I had to grow into adulthood to understand him as a cuckold). I knew who the “wise men” were. I knew why the animals were there in the manger, kneeling or not. I knew that there had been “no room at the inn.” I had just been subjected to Advent, and the lighting of candles, for 4 weeks. I had been in the church for 4 weeks, with all the other children. My point, at the end of the day? There can be no dissociation of “The Oxen” from Xianity. And children do, in fact, cotton to this stuff.

      So I put a query to you, Dave: Did children *not* attend church during advent in the mid-19th century in England, or in Dorchester? And, more to the point, were tales associated with “manger lore” somehow kept quarantined from the environing & ambient Christmas/Xian context? They were not in South Carolina in the Methodist Church––a Wesleyan offshoot & export of the Church of England––in the 1960s. I can scarcely imagine that they were in England in the 1860s.

      Dave, did you, at age 4 or 5 or 6, not attend your Baptist church during advent & get your head all full of nonsense about the “meaning of Xmas,” etc.? I ask these questions genuinely. Because this may be a national difference. But I suspect that 19th century Anglicanism––here I need Henry to inform me––actually involved, engaged children, from baptism on. We are not talking about the Anglican Church today, or about England today.

      Later you ask: “I put my question to you again: would this poem be significantly different if Hardy chose the doctrine of the virgin birth instead of the legend of the kneeling animals? Why did he choose something so unauthorised, peripheral, supplementary, folklorish, ultimately–I think most Christians would say–irrelevant to the Biblical account of Christ’s coming? I think any full response to the poem has to be able to answer this.”

      But Dave, Hardy *did* choose “manger lore” (as I a calling it for purposes of debate). What does “manger lore” do? It puts religious sentiments––*Xian* ones––into a “vocabulary” that appeals to children. That is its purpose. That is how I saw it used every Xmas in America. That is how it is used here still. And its appeal is marvelous. For Christ’s sake, Dave, it almost persuaded the likes of *me*!

      But I was no prodigy, Dave. And I knew that this was what I was being laid in for when I was 5. Why? Because my “elders” were constantly telling our kindergarten “flock” that this is what the manger lore––the star, the Magi, the myrhh, the stable, the animals therein (whether oxen or sheep), the angels hanging above, etc.––was “about.” And we sung “Silent Night” as we gazed upon our “manger scenes.” I didn’t know what “round yon Virgin” meant, doctrinally, as we sung it. But I certainly understood that I was being called into Xianity. I was being––as I now, in adulthood know to say––”interpellated” into Xianity. I was being hailed. For my own part, I think this a morally dubious thing to do to children, but I am wiling to say also that in almost all cases its result is innocuous enough.

      By the way, Slate, the on-line magazine, reprinted “The Oxen”––which is fairly smeared all over Xmas in America––this past week, w/ this note by the poet Robert Pinsky: “Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) can write about nostalgia, but he does so without sentimentality. In his Christmas poem “The Oxen” he also writes directly, but with nuance. The legend that the beasts kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve is treated with dignity, as are the regional dialect terms “barton” (a farmyard) and “coomb” (a valley). —Robert Pinsky.”

      The nuance is what I have been trying to bring us round to: not fanciful analogies to Elvis’ peanut butter, nor such arguments that “the elders” either debated w/ their childish “flock” such things as The Atonement, or The Trinity (the Holy Ghost of which, in some accounts, impregnated the Virgin Mary), and so on; *or* told the children fancy tales to be enjoyed merely as tales, entirely innocent of Xianity w/ all its “manger lore.”

      My last word will remain that “The Oxen” cannot be taken off the general Xian juggernaut. It was such tales as these that began the *initiation* into Xianity of children. Hardy’s poem takes this for granted, I think, though without such resentment & irony as one feels in his other Xmas poems. He attached “Christmastide” to the Boer War. He attached “The Oxen,” less pointedly but deliberately, to the Great War. And his “Christmas: 1924” goes further still to attach 2,000 years of priest-crafty “mass” to “poison gas.” Do you no see a figure in this carpet, Dave? Am I really obtuse in suggesting that there is one? For I want to know.

      “The Oxen,” so far as I can see, deals in that middle ground of Xian discourse, quite available to children, *between* doctrinal debate and mere fairy tales. We do our petty ABCs before we do our Latin conjugations (unless we are John Ruskin). And we do our “manger lore” before we do, and scrutinize, our catechisms.

      I think––let me say with deepest affection & sincerest respect, Dave––that you underestimate the reach and ambitions of the church, w/ its highly variegated integration into the cultures of Xian nations. The church offers itself up (so to speak) in many editions, some of which––sadly, in my view, though not in the view “The Oxen” takes––are meant for children.

      Frost wrote, in about 1915, a line that I find somehow apposite to all we have here discussed: “War is for children, too.” Yes. War and Xianity. Onward Xian soldiers, into South Africa, into India, into Indo-China, into Afghanistan, into Iraq. Or into France in 1915, when Hardy chose to print “The Oxen” in the papers.

      **Disclaimer: Any whim or undue vagary in the above reply may have been induced by jet-lag, sleep-deprivation, a good deal of drink, benzodiazepines, or any combination thereof.**

      W/ love, Dave, for you and Kaori & Annie, as ever–

      Mark

      P.S. Mayumi arrives here in about 5 hours!

  4. December 29, 2009 11:30 PM

    Hmm, at this stage in the morning, and before Henry sorts us out, I’ll just say that I’m certainly not saying that “the poem has to do with a “pretty fancy,” unrelated to Xianity.” It clearly and palpably IS to do with what I incline to call Christianity. But at the same time it’s oddly tangential, apocryphal, remote from scripture, as I’ve been trying to stress.

    That was the point of the Elvis thing, of course. The basic “theory” that Elvis didn’t die has inspired all sorts of fanciful subsidiary theories and elaborations and will no doubt continue doing so. For anyone to then pin their belief (or not) on one of those subsidiary elaborations (disappearing peanut butter or whatever!) satisfies no one: the die-hard “believer” armed with all his books on the subject is embarassed to find himself in such company, and the sceptical non-believer just thinks that it’s totally zany and “proves” the utter groundlessness of the larger theory. Thus with anyone who states their belief or disbelief in Christianity on the basis of whether oxen kneel on Christmas Eve!

    Whether or not we belive in Christianity we inhabit cultures that have been not only practically but imaginatively shaped by Christian ideas. The birth of Jesus Christ in the stable, whether true or not (and in some ways it doesn’t matter), has stirred the collective imagination of those cultures in a way that almost nothing else ever has, inspiring Church rituals, nativity plays, endless paintings, Carols, Christmas music, derivative stories, and all manner of derivative cultural works–for e.g. “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” by far the most successful opera ever written by an American, and long a standard part of Christmas for millions (as I understand). And sometime, somewhere, some unknown came up with the idea that oxen kneel at Christmas, and though it wasn’t true, and in fact incredibly easy to disprove, there was something attractive about the “fancy” and it spread and spread and reached the ears of young T. H.

    And how interesting, BTW, that revison in the poem (which I didn’t know about) of “believe” to “weave,” from passive reception to active making. In a way something akin to Coleridge’s ideas of the primary and secondary imagination the original imaginative “act” of the incarnation has gone one prompting countless other imaginative acts–except that, in a time of trench warfare, even the power of THAT seems finally to have run out.

    I hope Mayumi arrived safely! Love to you both,
    Dave

    • January 2, 2010 8:08 AM

      Hi Dave!

      A lively exchange you given me.

      I suppose what confused me about your view was this, from your first reply: “My real point is that the poem is surely more about imagination and trust than ‘religious sentiment’ as such. And I think the legend of Santa Claus bringing presents, though widespread only quite recently, and though horribly commercialised and Disneyfied today, is actually very apropos.”

      That’s what led me to query you about it & to express a bit of incredulity that the poem wasn’t very much indeed about Xian religious sentiments, as much as (or more than) “imagination and trust” as such.

      But now I see what you are getting at: simply that the tale of the oxen is tangential to scripture. I can agree w/ you there w/ this qualification & reservation: that the tale belongs to the tradition of “manger lore” begun in the Gospels seems to me beyond questions. But we’ll let it stand there.

      As for Mayumi: Yes, we had a wonderful but hectic time here in Philly/NYC, saw about a score of my dearest friends, whom I wanted as dearly for her to meet. When I say that these folk are my family I speak w/ out hyperbole, so for this Darwinian, it was very fine Xmas-tide indeed.

      I hope & trust it was the same for you, Kaori & Annie–

      My love to you all,
      Mark

  5. Henry permalink
    December 31, 2009 10:07 AM

    Am writing this, as my session-time expires, in a very noisy public library. I’m not sure I can contribute much to your debate, other than to say that I agree more with David than with Mark. I do think that the main point about the tale the ‘elder’ is retelling is that it is supplementary – most of the elements of the Nativity story have only the scantiest of Biblical justification, but this, of course, has none at all. I doubt that even in the mid-1840s [presumably the period Hardy is looking back on] the oxen’s kneeling would have been freighted with theological significance, and it certainly isn’t today. Nativity scenes don’t give me the shivers – as they seem to give Mark – and I don’t think, in 21st Century multicultural Britain, they can be regarded as indoctrination. But in South Carolina I can see how things might be different …
    A week or so ago, on the BBC, a ‘New Humanist’ was arguing the case for stripping Christmas of the few Christian associations it still, in this benighted land, retains. He thought that on the 25th December everybody should go to leisure centres and listen to secular sermons preached by Dawkins acolytes, and celebrate ‘science’ or – I spluttered on my Darjeeling – ‘humour’ [his po-faced deliverance was proceless].
    I have to say I don’t think this would serve.
    More thoughts, but only 4 minutes to get them down.
    1. I agree with Mark that ‘The Oxen’ isn’t that interesting a poem. ‘The Paphian Ball’ is extraordinary, though.
    2. I’ve never liked ‘Christmas 1924’ that much. It’s a throwaway. I don’t think the problem of evil poses much of a challenge to Christianity – in the same way as the appearance of design poses a challenge to Darwinism.
    3. Finally, for now, William James. I don’t think he gets Darwin quite right. As Dennettr, Dawkins etc would point out, it’s quite wrong to see Darwinism as a science of chance.
    I’ll follow up anon. Happy NY to you both.

    Henry

    • January 2, 2010 8:41 AM

      Henry, my man,

      I hope to be sharing a pint w/ you back in Kyoto soon. Or Sannomiya.

      As to “The Oxen,” I’ll address your kind reply point by point, because I just put Mayumi on her flight & am wasting time in an airport hotel room.

      You write: “Most of the elements of the Nativity story have only the scantiest of Biblical justification, but this, of course, has none at all. I doubt that even in the mid-1840s [presumably the period Hardy is looking back on] the oxen’s kneeling would have been freighted with theological significance, and it certainly isn’t today.”

      Yes, Henry, I had been trying to locate the tale within the Biblical tradition of “the manger lore” one finds in the Gospels. The scantiness of it you refer to invites such super-additions as this, namely that the oxen kneel. I still cannot read it without associating it w/ the initial manger lore from Luke: “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.”

      Shepherds, mangers (w/ the implicit animals there: horses, cattle, oxen) etc.: there it is, and there we are. And that the poem is Xian in sentiment I cannot but feel. Why? Hardy tells us so: “Christmas Eve and twelve of the clock,” he begins. And there, as I say, we are.

      Henry writes: “Nativity scenes don’t give me the shivers – as they seem to give Mark – and I don’t think, in 21st Century multicultural Britain, they can be regarded as indoctrination. But in South Carolina I can see how things might be different …”

      Indeed they are different (and you put your finger on what may be a point of confusion separating David’s from my responses to the poem). Manger scenes are, in fact, the subject of active & on-going litigation in many Southern states, for the violation they sometimes constitute between our Constitutional separation of church & state. Thankfully, the creche has been banished from most public buildings, though the Christers where I come from keep trying to sneak them back in. Along w/ the 10 Commandments. Etc.

      Henry writes: “A week or so ago, on the BBC, a ‘New Humanist’ was arguing the case for stripping Christmas of the few Christian associations it still, in this benighted land, retains. He thought that on the 25th December everybody should go to leisure centres and listen to secular sermons preached by Dawkins acolytes, and celebrate ’science’ or – I spluttered on my Darjeeling – ‘humour’ [his po-faced deliverance was priceless]. I have to say I don’t think this would serve.”

      If you know the URL at bbc.com, I’d love to hear this. I’ll mind what I’m drinking at the time.

      Henry writes: “More thoughts, but only 4 minutes to get them down. 1. I agree with Mark that ‘The Oxen’ isn’t that interesting a poem. ‘The Paphian Ball’ is extraordinary, though.”

      It strikes me as fairly Hawthornian. Somehow it must be in the orbit, way out, of “Tess.”

      Henry writes: “2. I’ve never liked ‘Christmas 1924′ that much. It’s a throwaway. I don’t think the problem of evil poses much of a challenge to Christianity – in the same way as the appearance of design poses a challenge to Darwinism.”

      It is a throwaway, but a *good* one. Light verse w/ a real sting in its tail, w/ that terminal rhyme. I like that sort of thing. (RF was good at it in his later light verse; so was Larkin, when he larked.) My own favorites amongst these here might be the one about the Elgin marbles. 2nd: the one associated w/ the Boer War.

      Henry writes: “3. Finally, for now, William James. I don’t think he gets Darwin quite right. As Dennett, Dawkins etc would point out, it’s quite wrong to see Darwinism as a science of chance.”

      I agree. James laid too much emphasis on chance in the passage I quoted, as against the other two legs of the Darwinian algorithm. But the pragmatists––James included, and in the passage quoted––laid great emphasis on what they took to be the idea implied by Darwin that the future is not fixed. (Interestingly, WEB DuBois makes the same point in his biography of John Brown: 1859 being the connection between Darwin & Brown.) What the pragmatists liked was how, for them, Darwinism put paid to eschatology. (Especially Dewey, here.)

      See you soon Henry.

      My love to Yumi & Marika––

      Mark

  6. Henry permalink
    January 4, 2010 3:14 PM

    Time again pressing, but another quick thought.
    What is the situation Hardy is describing here? Clearly not pedagogical [no Sunday School or equivalent at midnight on Christmas Eve], nor ritual [we’re not in a church]. The setting is domestic, but then what are we to make of the “elder”. My feeling – no more than that – is that he isn’t a grandfather [or grandmother]. S/He seems invested with a more-than-domestic authority, although I catch a very faint hint that there are other adults present, who are registering but not really attending to what s/he is saying. The story is not for them, although it is something in which they might take pleasure [of the melancholic variety Hardy seems to have experience in writing the poem].
    If he is an elder of the church then we are in nonconformist territory [Plymouth Brethren, perhaps] – what was Hardy’s religious upbringing. [I know he wasn’t Brethren, but might he have had some contact with them?]
    My main point is that the oxen kneeling is tailored to the children. But the tailoring is in the service of the mood, the atmosphere – the theology of the event being celebrated is extraneous. Maybe there is a deception being practised here; the children may come to believe in a narrative that is, frankly, and even to many children, unbelievable [I always had problems with the star. How can a star shine upon a stable? Starshine is so general and nonspecific]; the kneeling oxen are a wedge driven into this wider narrative, for the childish imagination to enter. But the real deception – it seems to me [and, I guess, to David also] – deception might not be the right word – is about the fullness of the moment – the chiaroscuro [spelling?], the heathlight, the circle of faces, the surrounding darkness. The aroma – what stays with you. The deception is that this lasts – while the burden of Hardy’s poem is that it doesn’t.
    When you’re an adult Christmas is about achieving the fullness of time for other people [ungrateful, most of them].
    All of this complete bollocks, of course. And now I must go.

    Henry

    • January 4, 2010 10:42 PM

      Henry, my man,

      I write from Brooklyn, NY, just off Grand Army Plaza with its splendid monument to the Union Armies.

      I like what you say & how you say it––the aroma, the mood of what’s evoked.

      Some very slight suggestion as to how we are to feel about this “elder” is given us, incidentally, when the epithet “flock” is applied to his auditors. His role is pastoral in some sense, though we’ve no reason at all to suppose him to be a pastor. He is telling the children tales that have to do with Xmas, and therefore, by extension, in a general way, with Xianity. He is not telling them tales about the Easter Bunny (which tales were, of course, utterly devoid of Xian sentiments), or tales about Halloween or the tooth fairy. He is initiating them into Xianity, let us say, by placing it in a vocabulary that naturally appeals to them. But this is not the burden of the poem. And to sum up my own view, I’d simply say this: “The Oxen” concerns a tale told to children, but is, of course, a poem written essentially for adults, and in time of war. And it expresses, adult to adult, a nostalgia for an earlier time when beliefs of a particular sort (yes, Christian beliefs, not beliefs about oxen kneeling held apart from more scriptural or doctrinal Christian beliefs) were still viable, still going concerns, still live possibilities.

      Now I shall check the New Yorker to see if there are any good bands in town tonight.

  7. January 6, 2010 8:15 PM

    Another pennysworth: I don’t think “deception” is the right word, indeed, but do think Henry sketches the sense of wholeness in those opening lines very well. It’s a time when the imagination is not, after all, “the imagination,” but simply part and parcel of the child’s being. Blake would have a lot to say on that.

    It seems to me “The Oxen” can be glossed to some extent, and without violence being done to it, with reference to other Hardy poems of nostalgia for childhood, and I’m thinking in particular of “The Self-Unseeing”: “everything glowed with a gleam / Yet we were looking away!” The impossible wish, as I understand it, is for an adult consciousness of the “value” of imagination, of mortality, of the precariousness of happiness etc. to be somehow coupled with the child’s totally unselfconscious imaginative joy. In other words, to at once be totally oneself and at the same time be smiling AT oneself as though in a mirror. If there is deception, at least it is pretty much universal, but I think Blake’s idea of a “fall” into self-consciousness, worldly consciousness, science consciousness etc. is probably more to the point. The “twinkle, twinkle little star” becomes the massive ball of burning gas light years away.

    An extension of this thought, which won’t surprise anyone who’s read my earlier comments, is that I don’t think the elder is wrong to say what he says, and I don’t think the poem is in any way accusing him. The fancy is “fair,” but it’s also a fancy, and as the child grows up s/he learns that most of what s/he believes is in fact a fancy.

    I had to explain to my 3-year-old yesterday that something she believed was in fact a complete misunderstanding. I saw her little mind struggling to cope with the “information,” and the dawning recognition that she had been wrong, and felt very emotional. Who would want to push them into the “real” world?

    All best,
    Dave

    • January 7, 2010 1:19 AM

      こにちわ、Dave-先生, Henry-先生,

      It is as if we are reconstituting on-line, at The Era of Casual Fridays, 1/3 of the late great & fabled Modern Poetry Seminar. Where’s Ed? Where’s JB? Where is our Elder? Where’s the Chinese restaurant?

      Dave, your suggestion that we have to do here with a “fall” is correct, but for me it will always remain a fall out of the possibility of Xian faith, or, if you prefer, a fall into a post-Xian world (i.e., for men like Hardy, with his Darwin and his Schopenhauer, God bless him).

      Read again and see where the language of the poem takes us: “Christmas Eve,” “they are all on their knees,” “flock,” “meek,” “kneeling,” that second “Christmas Eve,” etc. To what area within English do all these terms belong? What magnetizes them for British & North American English speakers? What other than Christianity & the English Bible, together with what has grown around these latter by way of auxiliary and supporting traditions & lore? I should have thought that point beyond controversy, and yet I find it made quite controversial. Funny how these things fall out. Am I really now to believe that a poem explicitly attached to Xmas Eve, and bearing in it language that hews close to many a phrase in the New Testament, and that draws on the manger lore, is somehow not really “about” the sorry fate, in 1915, of precisely all these things? And to believe instead that the poem is chiefly concerned with a general nostalgia for childhood?

      Here I shall again make the point that though the poem concerns children it is not really written for them or about them, but for and about adult Englishmen in 1915, for there Hardy dates it to give precise sense to the phrase “these years.” On internal evidence alone the poem is an oblique response to the war, and an expression of nostalgia for a time before the old religious enterprises (with which men of Hardy’s intellectual class, so to speak, used to make sense out of the world) had been laid waste. Again, not laid waste for everyone, for there are many millions of Xians yet who believe much more than that there was no room at the inn and the Redeemer of mankind was born in a manger. (As Henry pointed out a while back, I hail not merely from America, but from the Bible Belt of it: Xianity is a going concern there still.) But laid waste for men like Hardy, with his Darwin and his Schopenhauer, God bless him.

      And yet as Hardy says in one of the last poems he ever published, with reference to the successive collapse of every system of belief that had ever taken root in the West only then to be displaced, and to wither and die: “Fill full your cups, feel no distress, / ‘Tis only one great thought the less.” The fall of Xianity, should it ever really come––and why shouldn’t it, for all things fall?––ought occasion us no special distress. Fill full your cups. かんぱい! ‘Tis only one great thought the less. We got some very good music & architecture & poetry out of it while it lasted.

      That “The Oxen” is, most assuredly, also a lovely recollection of childhood things, and a lovely evocation of child-like credulity, seems to me to countervail none of this. But then what have I been since childhood but a natural & easy atheist anyway? Which, I hereby lay my bet, is why “The Oxen” doesn’t touch me as it may touch readers for whom religious wonder was at some point a part of their lives.

      There. All my cards are on the table.

      New York City にまだいますよ。土曜日、京都へかえります。I’ll have to ask 真弓ちゃん to correct my 日本語。(I am availing myself of the Japanese keyboard on my Macbook Air.)

      I hope to see the both of you soon. Dave, it’ll be 月曜日。Henry? 金曜日わ? Or shall I come to さんおみや?With The Pirate in my train.

      The latest news from the USA: TV pundit & political reporter Brit Hume (of Fox News) opined this week, on air, that Tiger Woods’ real problem is that he is a Buddhist and not a Xian. Look up the clip on YouTube:

      Yours as always,
      Mark

  8. Dave permalink
    January 8, 2010 3:36 AM

    Hey Mark,

    Yes, this has often reminded me of the MPS, even down to our “Elder” often coming out with something in the fabulous line!

    You suggested to me some time ago that I had set up a false opposition, but it seems to me that’s what you’re doing in your last (and perhaps not just your last). It’s meaningless to say one has to somehow choose whether the poem is about Christianity OR “general nostalgia for childhood.” It clearly involves both elements, and establishing their interrelation has (in my understanding) been what this discussion is all about.

    It’s obviously a Christmas poem, and I’m sure there’s several reasons, most obviously that it was written at Christmas, but also that Christmas is a time when children’s imaginations are particularly encouraged to come alive, and a time of fireside togetherness and happiness—so different, of course, to the atmosphere of the Western Front.

    Our difference seems to have a lot to do with the fact that you treat the Christianity in the poem as creedal, while Henry and I (I hope I do his position justice) treat it as much more cultural and imaginative. Which is why, I would have thought, Hardy can gloss the legend as a “fair fancy.” Surely he wouldn’t describe the crucifixion as a “fair fancy”? Or Pauline theology? You never did take up my question of why Hardy makes his poem turn on a folkloric, apocryphal “fancy” rather than something more squarely scriptural and Christian. If the Elder is proselytizing, why does he build his case on such a flimsy “fancy”?

    I hadn’t thought of this before, but an exceptionally useful guide to how Christmas appealed to a middle-class Victorian sensibility in the 1840s is Dicken’s Christmas Carol. If it’s christian it’s christian with a small “c.” Dickens certainly nods—perhaps slightly more than nods—at the baby in the manger, but in general a fairly vague “christian spirit” is separated from doctrinal issues and reinterpreted in terms of family togetherness, the joy of charity, and a general spirit of jollity–and imagination, perhaps.

    I thought at one point that this was all a transatlantic difference, but I don’t know! I’ve met a good few Americans who find it pleasant to go to church at Christmas, even to go carol singing, without feeling any more than culturally Christian (i.e. not Islamic, not Buddhist etc.); people who really just like the tradition of it all, as I do. I guess to really “feel” the poem one has to find something inside oneself that answers to the last line—and I certainly think the world is full of people who can find in this something of themselves. But this doesn’t mean that one has to have had anything to do with Christianity specifically.

    As ever,
    Dave

    • January 8, 2010 1:46 PM

      Hi Dave,

      I had in mind the first remark you made: “My real point is that the poem is surely more about imagination and trust than ‘religious sentiment’ as such. And I think the legend of Santa Claus bringing presents, though widespread only quite recently, and though horribly commercialised and Disneyfied today, is actually very apropos. Surely children believe in Santa not just because of ‘self-interest’ but because the idea serves an imaginative need, and because, most of all, their parents assure them that there is indeed such a person. Add the fact that their parents know perfectly well that the whole thing is a fiction, and that they are essentially lying, and we’re getting close to my understanding of the central thrust of the poem.”

      That is the view of the poem against which I registered all my demurrals: to wit, that it is “surely more about” “imaginative needs” than about Xianity as such. (Incidentally I never suggested that the poem involves anything “creedal,” unless you take the belief that there was or is or could be a Christ, a Messiah, born on Christmas Eve, to be “creedal.” If that is what you had in mind, Dave, well, I must plead guilty, but otherwise not. I spoke of the poem as drawing on the “manger lore” associated w/ the advent of Christ in the book of Luke, which is the Xmas story best suited to, and most often purveyed to, children––at least from the English Bible.)

      But can’t we say that we’ve brought ourselves round to agreement on the following statements about the poem (which I take to be relatively non-controversial)? I rank them in no special order.

      1) On internal evidence (namely, Hardy’s dating of the poem in 1915 to give particular force to the phrase “in these years”), “The Oxen” is an oblique response to the Great War.

      2) The poem expresses nostalgia for a time when, for a certain sort of person in England, it was still possible to believe not simply in something vaguely religious, but, indeed, in Xianity. Here I am considering the fact, again, that though the poem concerns children it is not really written for them, but instead for other Englishmen in a time of war when one might well “hope” that Redemption was at least on offer––against all the evidence to the contrary “in these years.”

      3) Hardy evokes very well the lovely mood of Christmases past––and here, the loveliness includes a peculiarly touching sort of naivete––the better to set that mood over against the unredeemably grim mood of 1915.

      4) The poem has in view, to be sure, no particular doctrine within Xianity, but the general enterprise of it, as some rural English families once felt it, round the hearthside of a Christmas Eve at midnight.

      Can we agree this far?

      I hope so. And in closing, I would put one more question, not to you particularly, Dave, but to you and anyone else before whose eyes these web-pages may pass. Why is it that Hardy seems to attach (by one ligature or another) so many of his poems on the Xmas theme to war?

      (Here I concede that I have no concordance handy; I am working instead from indices of poem titles, hunting up those bearing some form of the word Christmas in them. “The Oxen” of course I knew already to concern Xmas.)

      I am at JFK airport as I type, waiting to board a flight to Tokyo, which will then bear me down to KIX, and back into the company of you and Henry.

      Yours as ever, & w/ fondest regards to Kaori and Annie,
      Mark

      See you next week!

  9. January 9, 2010 2:49 AM

    Hi Mark,

    Welcome back to godless JP! (Where many people do say “I wish I believed in something [religious]”)

    The gap between our positions, which mayhap at times seemed rather bigger than it really was, has certainly greatly narrowed, and any residual tensions between our views, which I would locate in your summarised point (2), are hardly worth quibbling over. I would, though, personally write that:

    (2) The poem expresses nostalgia for a time in the past, both the personal and cultural past, in which the world seemed a brighter, more hopeful place. A time when beautiful “fancies” seemed absolutely believable. [The non-Christian reader can actually leave it there, and I would encourage them to do so. However to the Christian reader, or the reader like yourself who is interested in the poem partly because of its being a specific response to the Christian Christmas we can add …] A time when “God was in his Heaven and all was right with the world.” A time when Christ’s nativity seemed a real and beautiful and inspiring event, miraculously acknowledged even in the animal creation.

    I recognise that my first point (in the first of these exchanges) may have been misleading. It was really that the POWER of the poem has much more to do with issues of imagination and trust than Christianity per se. I have no religious belief and yet I find it very powerful and moving. And I’ve taught it to students who have even less religion (at least I know and have some affection for the stories of the faith in which I was raised), and almost no knowledge of Christianity, and they find it powerful and moving too. By contrast, you suggested that the poem didn’t particularly appeal to you as you had no religious sentiment. And that’s what set me off …

    It’s been a really good discussion. I kind of hope some students will one day read through it and be inspired to analyse the poem and the feelings it arouses for themselves. Here’s hoping!

    All best & see you soon,
    Dave

    • January 9, 2010 5:41 AM

      Thanks as always, Dave. It *has* been a good discussion; it has compelled me to clarify my own thoughts about the poem, to which I’d never paid any special attention, as my inclinations lead me naturally toward the darkest parts of Hardy: the “gloom” that promises to overtake even “The Oxen” (a nicely equivocal word, that one, to lay into those last two lines, before the date falls beneath: 1915). And I think that because of the discussion I rather like the poem more now than I did before––I certainly find it more interesting––perhaps for reasons that differ slightly from those that make it appealing to you: the way Hardy affixes it to the Great War.

      As for students reading this discussion: I do know that several of my own have visited other of these pages than these, though I rather doubt any has ever troubled him- or herself to scroll all the way through our current deliberations. Anyway, the stats given me by “WordPress” (the blogging software) indicate that some 85% of the 5,500 odd visits have come from North America.

      I am now at Narita, awaiting my connection to KIX. I am back on Japan time.

      Yours as ever,
      Mark

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