Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas, Part Five: "I Should Go With Him In The Gloom, Hoping It Might Be So"

In my previous post I suggested that any (alleged) pessimism in Thomas Hardy's world-view is free of cynicism and misanthropy.  Take, for example, the following poem.  Hardy wrote the poem when he was 75.  It was first published in The Times on December 24, 1915, when the ever-increasing horror of the First World War had become manifest.  When the poem was reprinted in subsequent editions of his poetry, Hardy included "1915" as a subscript, presumably as a reminder of the historical context in which the poem was written.

                          Ben Nicholson, "1930 (Christmas Night)" (1930)

                    The Oxen

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

Thomas Hardy, Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917).  A "barton" is a farmyard.  A "coomb" is, according to the OED, "a deep hollow or valley."

I take Hardy on his word.  At some point in his life he lost his faith.  But there is no mockery in the poem.  There is no air of superiority.  There is no implicit "who would believe that!"

I am in complete agreement with him.  Yes, it is true:  "So fair a fancy few would weave/In these years!"  We moderns are quite sophisticated, as well as unillusioned and undeceived, aren't we?  But a question remains:  would you or would you not "go with him in the gloom/Hoping it might be so"?

                                    Edvard Munch, "Starry Night" (1893)

14 comments:

Julie Whitmore Pottery said...

Much like a march of hope, the faith is in the journey I guess.
Yes, I would go.
Merry Christmas, Stephen!

Sam Vega said...

Yes, I would go, and hope, too. And if they were kneeling, I would spend a lot of time on the internet afterwards, researching bovine habits and physiology.

Stephen Pentz said...

Merry Christmas to you as well, Julie. I appreciate your long-time loyalty and I'm always happy to hear your thoughts on the things I post.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: thank you very much for stopping by, and for your thoughts.

Hah! Your point is well taken. And I have no doubt that any scientist worth his or her salt would be able to provide a perfectly rational, non-superstitious explanation for the phenomenon of kneeling oxen!

Thanks again.

Bovey Belle said...

I have posted this poem at Christmas on my blog several times (and intend to again this year). I love the way that Hardy has a tendency to hark back to the safety of his childhood, and loved to keep traditions alive.

He did indeed lose his faith and I think his Bible was littered with "notes in the margin" to prove so. WWI compounded this, I believe.

I am smiling at the thought of the oxen kneeling merely because they hadn't been mucked out all winter and were a couple of feet higher than the hay forked in for them at the edge of their byre!

Squirrel said...

Mr.Stephen Pentz
I have been a visitor to your place for about one and half years now. Every time i wanted to comment, self-consciousness prevented me. But someday i had to say 'Thank You'.
Thank You, for teaching me to appreciate poetry.
Before this i had only read Palgrave's Golden treasury in bits and pieces. The book is with me for the last ten years, neglected and now in tatters.
Now, I would pull it out of my shelf and complete it.
Thanks again.

Andy McEwan said...

I would go and gladly. Don't we all want to gaze on the wondrous and uncanny? Often we will not see it but on the journey we may see much else of wonder and of worth and that is what makes our journeying worthwhile.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: yes, I always enjoy his poems about his childhood and the long-gone people and places of Dorset. One commentator has noted that the source of "The Oxen" is a story told to Hardy by his mother when he was a child.

Thank you, as ever, for stopping by, Bovey Belle. Merry Christmas!

Stephen Pentz said...

Squirrel: I greatly appreciate your thoughtful and kind words. Thank you very much.

I am extremely fortunate to find loyal readers such as you, and I am humbled and flattered that you return here to see what I post. My sole goal is to share what I like with others, in the hope that it may resonate with them as well. And if I have, in some small way, helped you to enjoy poetry (and sent you back to Palgrave!), then I am delighted.

Thank you again. Happy holidays, and I wish you the best for the New Year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr McEwan: Well said. And a walk through the Dorset countryside at midnight on Christmas Eve would likely be lovely!

As always, thank you for visiting. Merry Christmas.

Mirabilis said...

I would go, but only as far as the stable door - I wouldn't dare to look in case they weren't kneeling.

N. F. Mohammad said...

I never took Hardy as someone who can mock faith, on the contrary. Somehow i can see in his poetry a call, or a cry of a lost soul that wants to regain security. most of us in one time or another in our lives, we lose what we used to have good grip of, be it faith, hope, or anything that sustained life in us. however, as we lose it, we gain it back again when winter allows spring to take over in our hearts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mirabilis: thank you for that thought! After all, it does come down to a matter of faith, doesn't it? Whether or not one actually sees the oxen kneel does not matter in the end. As Ms. Whitmore and Mr. McEwan both point out in their comments above, it is the journey that counts.

Thank you very much for visiting. Merry Christmas.

Stephen Pentz said...

N. F. Mohammad: thank you very much for stopping by, and for those thoughts.

Yes, I agree that, although he lost his faith, Hardy would never mock religion, or those who have religious faith. This is why I think "The Oxen" is such a moving poem: despite the conclusions that he has arrived at about how the World is, he would still "go with him in the gloom,/Hoping it might be so."

As I remarked in a recent post, I am always struck by Hardy's empathy towards people. And, importantly, his empathy is not empathy in the abstract for "humanity," but empathy for individual people. There are plenty of people who profess to care about "humanity" and "the world," but who are incapable of behaving decently toward the individual people who they encounter in their daily lives. Hardy was not like that; he may have lost his religious faith, but he knew that each and every soul is unique and valuable.

Thank you again.