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My Inner Anthology: The Oxen by Thomas Hardy

Written by Rachael Norris, 23rd December 2020

Katie Clark, Learning and Quality Leader at The Reader, shares her experience of reading the poem The Oxen by Thomas Hardy. The theme for our daily readings in December is 'Winter Warmth' download the calendar here. 

I first read this poem with a reading group in a care home for people living with dementia. I was immediately struck by the strong reaction to the opening lines. People began to nod and smile as we read them together. It felt like we were being transported to a different place, and able to come together around the poem. People were looking at one another, making eye contact and smiling. There was connection, perhaps something to do with the familiar feeling of Christmas Eve and gathering together ‘in hearthside ease’.

I have read it many times since, and am always surprised by the atmosphere it creates. There is a quietness about it I think. There is a sense of joy and togetherness at the beginning, but it feels thoughtful and solemn too. To do with memory and looking back to youth and the things ‘our childhood used to know’, but also the difference between childhood and later years.

In childhood it does not even ‘occur to one of us there To doubt they were kneeling then.’ but now it is a ‘hoping it might be so.’ I’m interested in the difference between these two, and which is the stronger feeling. The ‘hope’ in some ways feels more fragile, but it also feels that in order for that hope to exist at all it has to be fought for in a way the natural belief of childhood is not. So that makes me wonder if there is power in that struggle, a kind of determination to hold onto it, in spite of everything.  The phrase ‘Yet, I feel…’ is interesting here, like a refusal to completely let go of that childhood faith or trust. And interesting that it is once again on ‘Christmas Eve’ that this moment feels possible. As if there is maybe some residual magic that remains and offers possibility to fire this hope, even in the ‘gloom’.


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.

Thomas Hardy 


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