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.
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…