"The Oxen" by Thomas Hardy

What makes them great.
Dec. 25 2012 10:31 AM

"The Oxen"

Robert Pinsky reads Thomas Hardy's Christmas poem.

Barn in the snow.

Photograph by Photos.com/Thinkstock.

Irving Berlin dealt with Christmas expectations by writing a song about being in California: The little-known verse to “White Christmas” makes it clear that the dream of snow and sleighbells is set in “Beverly Hills, L.A.” where “the orange and palm trees sway.”

In an entirely different way, Thomas Hardy attains surprise as well as nostalgia by basing his Christmas poem on a country legend. Hardy shows respect for rural customs and the kind of unorthodox beliefs that some might call “superstition.” The respect, along with his wry, gentle detachment, both gain a kind of authority from the regional terms “barton” (a farmyard) and “coomb” (a valley).

Here again, in a Slate tradition, is Hardy's “The Oxen.”

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear Robert Pinsky read this poem. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
    "Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
    By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
    They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
    To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
    In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
    "Come; see the oxen kneel,

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

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