Top poems 5: Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) — “The Oxen”

I find the people of Hardy’s generation quite fascinating. A N Wilson’s God’s Funeral is one interesting account of why this might be so, but in brief this was the generation that grew up deeply influenced either by evangelical Christianity, or by Catholicism, or both, but took on the implications of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, and in Hardy’s case lived through the impact of World War I, during which this poem was published. The photo, from a History of the American Field Service in France, is captioned: “Funeral of Richard Hall, Christmas 1915”.

And we think we live in an age of change!

This poem may best be seen, perhaps, as about nostalgia for belief. On The Victorian Web you may find a couple of relevant essays: Thomas Hardy’s Religious Beliefs by George P Landow, and Image, Allusion, Voice, Dialect, and Irony in Thomas Hardy’s "The Oxen" and the Poem’s Original Publication Context by Philip Allingham.

008

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.

To quote Allingham:

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…

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…

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 of 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…

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Top poems 3: Robert Southwell “The Burning Babe”

It has been a while between poems here! With Christmas coming up, I thought I would post a few Christmas poems. This is perhaps the most bizarre, though I recall when first reading it at the age of sixteen being quite drawn by its odd imagery. I am no longer so sure of the theology it encapsulates, but that is another matter.

nativity

Piero della Francesca, Nativity (c. 1470), National Gallery, London

    

THE BURNING BABE

By Robert Southwell

As I in hoary Winter’s night stood shiveringe in the snowe,
Surpris’d I was with sodayne heat, which made my hart to glowe;
And liftinge upp a fearefull eye to
vewe what fire was nere,
A prety Babe all burninge bright, did in the ayre appeare.
Who scorchèd with excessive heate, such floodes of teares did shedd,
As though His floodes should quench His flames which with His teares were fedd;
Alas! quoth He, but newly borne, in fiery heates I frye,
Yet none approch to warme their hartes or feele my fire but I!
My faultles brest the fornace is, the fuell woundinge thornes,
Love is the fire, and sighes the smoke, the ashes shame and scornes;
The fuell Justice layeth on, and Mercy blowes the coales,
The metall in this fornace wrought are men’s defilèd soules,
For which, as nowe on fire I am, to worke them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to washe them in My bloode:
With this He vanisht out of sight, and swiftly shroncke awaye,
And straight I callèd unto mynde that it was Christmas-daye.

 

Southwell was a Catholic martyr. According to WikiSource, from which I took the original spelling edition above: “The Burning Babe was taken from a collection called St. Peter’s Complaint, printed privately and circulated shortly after the poet’s execution in 1595. Ben Jonson said that he would have been content to destroy many of his own poems to have written The Burning Babe.” The title link takes you to a modernised version.

For a Jerome Rothenberg book of the same name see illustrated Burning Babe.

Top poems 2: John Donne (1572-1631): Satire III — “Of Religion”

Donne Written in a European world wracked by religious controversy and religious war, with conflicting truth claims further complicated by late Renaissance humanism, by the beginnings of a scientific world view, and by the impact of new worlds in the Americas and elsewhere on educated people, John Donne: Satire III is part of a body of work not really valued by many until the early 20th century when its modernity captured the minds of many poets and critics. Continue reading

Top poems 1: The amazing web site of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

The amazing web site of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is not hype; it is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful sites on the Web. I go there for #1 in a new series on Ninglun’s Specials, where I promise not to be too original, but I do want to share some of the great treasures that have given me pleasure for close on sixty years now. Do check the VodPod in the left side bar too, as whenever possible I will add an appropriate video for each post in this series.

SONNET 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou seest the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire

Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Oh yes, except in my case Autumn is moving into Winter…

wall

That was taken in Canberra in Autumn this year by Sue, whose WordPress photo blog is well worth visiting.