Poems of Christmas

Unicef-inspired ornaments from my childhood (see "Mother Night")

Unicef-inspired ornaments from my childhood

George Oppen sent me to Thomas Hardy. It was these lines, from “Of Being Numerous”:

. . . But who escapes

Among these riders
Of the subway,

They know
By now as I know

Failure and the guilt
Of failure.
As in Hardy’s poem of Christmas . . .

“As in Hardy’s poem of Christmas.” Oppen’s casual reference punctuates a none-too-casual confession: We all know, the “they” and the “I,” both “failure” and the guilt of it. Crushing. I heard and read these lines many times before I sought out Hardy’s “poem of Christmas.” But the thing is, Hardy wrote many poems of Christmas, all little masterpieces of failure and its guilt. Hardy’s failure lies in his inability to have faith without doubt. His Spinner of the Years—as he calls that nameless, indifferent force that determines all in “The Convergence of the Twain”—is indeed sinister. Yet Hardy is no nihilist. Otherwise, there’s no accounting for the enormous work he put into telling stories of the impoverished and ill-fated. If, as Tess says, “all is vanity,” then why bother caring about another’s misery?

The Hardy Christmas poem Oppen refers to is, of course, “The Oxen.” Here’s Oppen’s retelling of it

We might half-hope to find the animals
In the sheds of a nation
Kneeling at midnight

“Half-hope” Oppen writes. But I wonder if, in Hardy’s poem, the hope isn’t half, but whole. Here are Hardy’s lines:

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.

Rhyming “coomb” with “gloom.” Even though I must look up “coomb” to learn it is a “hollow” or “valley” I find this resonance gorgeous. There is a genuine longing to believe, bound up with the magical landscape of childhood. Oppen’s poem, by contrast, stresses guilt rather than doubt:

Farm animals,
Draft animals, beasts for slaughter
Because it would mean they have forgiven us,
Or which is the same thing,
That we do not altogether matter.

Returning to these lines I am reminded of another Hardy-esque writer: Richard Eberhart. One of the most troubling and oddly compelling poems I read this past year was his “Fragment of New York, 1929.” It describes his vision of a slaughterhouse as he walks into work:

. . . Death I saw,
And wormed through it. And make fragment
Of the end of a time, when seethed
So thick the life, it knew not,
In savage complexity, modernity,
The harsh omnipotence of evil.

These lines are both exquisite and too extreme. “[O]mnipotence of evil” smacks of politics. Both Oppen and Eberhart link slaughtering animals to the human violation of any contract with an ethical universe. It is a purely modern view that would baffle any resident of antiquity. While Hardy, perhaps because he lived on the cusp of that “savage complexity, modernity,” still harbors a doubt one can believe in. It is beautifully put in “Christmastide”:

The rain-shafts splintered on me
As despondently I strode;
The twilight gloomed upon me
And bleared the blank high-road.
Each bush gave forth, when blown on
By gusts in shower and shower,
A sigh, as it were sown on
In handfuls by a sower.

A cheerful voice called, nigh me,
‘A merry Christmas, friend!’—
There rose a figure by me,
Walking with townward trend,
A sodden tramp’s, who, breaking
Into thin song, bore straight
Ahead, direction taking
Toward the Casuals’ gate.

The sodden tramp’s  “merry Christmas, friend!” comes from the same unaccountable will to life-affirmation that prompts the blast-beruffled bird in “The Darkling Thrush”—though there is little cause for carolings—to fling “his soul / Upon the growing gloom.” Hardy puts our comfortable miseries to shame as he captures the seemingly inexplicable joy of the creature barely clinging to life. Joy to the World. Such is the message of the tramp and the aged and frail thrush: While I still can sing, I shall.


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