I hadn’t planned this piece for my April column, but something happened that was impossible to ignore. Within a week, three different friends (count them, three!) from different parts of the country emailed to say they’d come across an old Crier column that they’d saved for twelve years and had sent to many friends because it meant much to them.
Well, I’m not one to shrug off signs. In medieval times, they called them “correspondences:” events beyond likely coincidence that might speak of divine direction. Today’s Quakers speak of “leadings,” and I’m a Quaker.
And so, even though the piece refers to Christmas references and it’s now half-past Lent, I’m presuming that, in a world even more troubled, the column will still “speak to readers’ condition.” After a dozen years, the world is no less troubled and even more adrift:
Long ago, when the world was almost new and I was a young prof teaching poetry, our textbook included a fine Thomas Hardy piece called, “The Oxen.” Its setting is Christmas Eve and recalls a dear legend from England’s West Country. At the stroke of midnight on Christmas, says the legend, all England’s oxen kneel in reverent awe of Christ’s birth.
It’s a wistful agnostic who speaks in the poem.
“So fair a fancy few would weave/ in these years!” he says sadly.
But he adds that, if someone urged him to come out to the barn to see the kneeling beasts, he’d follow readily.
“I should go with him in the gloom,/ Hoping it might be so.”
When I taught that poem, I’d emphasize that it was written in 1915, when England was learning the nature and horrible cost of modern war. Hardy seems to ask how one can possibly sustain belief, much less hope, in the face of such horrors.