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The Oxen(1917)

Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
MeterChristmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.

Note on line 1: The stressing of this line is pretty straightforward, but it’s not so clear how to divide up the feet. Given eight syllables, it might seem simplest to make three trochees followed by an iamb. This initially appealing choice, though, would be misleading, since later lines firmly establish the meter of the whole poem as iambic. Better acknowledge that rising rhythm from the very start, even at the inconvenient expense of catalexis, i.e. of a one-syllable first foot. Don’t feel too bad about the missed trochaic opportunity here. First-position trochees will be frequent in the coming lines, at times even poignant in their underdog folk resistance to the iambic norm and what Hardy makes it stand for. That’s another reason for not letting the trocheesm run rampant here.

“Now they are all on their knees,”
Meter“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
MeterAn elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
MeterBy the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
MeterWe pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
MeterThey dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
MeterNor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
MeterTo doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
MeterSo fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
MeterIn these years! Yet, I feel,

Note on line 10: The first three words of this line furnish a nice example of how colloquial speech pattern trumps the prosodic rules of thumb. The rules say that “years,” a monosyllabic noun, should take stress, while the common adjective “these” should not. But not this time — not if you’re listening for the speaking voice.

If someone said on Christmas Eve,
MeterIf someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel
Meter“Come; see the oxen kneel

Note on line 12: This homely line grows beautiful through the slightest of rhythmic departures from the metrical norm. Iambics have totally governed stanza 3 to this point. But now a trochaic first foot lets this line skip back prosodically to resume the relaxed pattern of double-slacks that was so frequent in stanzas 1 and 2, which associate that pattern with good old days when belief came easy too. Hardy’s complicated poetic act of personal remembering reaches deep down into the cultural bones.


In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
MeterIn the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
MeterOur childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
MeterI should go with him in the gloom,

Note on line 15: The exquisite ambivalence that Hardy expresses about the lost faith of his childhood opens several valid options for scanning this line. 4B4V permits a trochee in the first foot and even the second: use them, and you get a rewarding sense of tentative mystery. Still, doesn’t the poem as a whole read better if that stumbling effect is reserved for the line to come? If you let line 15 be strictly iambic like line 14, those two lines render the willed entrancement, the conscious suspension of disbelief, from which line 16 then awakens into mere but honest hopefulness. What matters most about line 15 is the prosodically communicated sense of multiple possibility.

Hoping it might be so.
MeterHoping it might be so.

Rhyme

Resources

Ronald Carter.  “Between Languages: Grammar and Lexis in Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Oxen.'”  Twentieth Century Poetry: From Text to Context. Ed. Peter Verdonk.  London: Routledge, 1993.  57-67.
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