The world in which the poem was written, it should not be forgotten, was the world of the First World War, and that barely imaginable slaughter can't but brood over words that seem at first sight intensely personal. But of course it is the intensely personal that makes great poetry reach out to the wider world. It's a poem that has stuck with me through most of my life, and I have retold the tale Hardy tells many times, sometimes in some odd places - it has been told to children in Christmas episodes of both 'Emmerdale' and 'Eastenders' written long ago now, for instance.
Anyway, the original poem has a lot more to it than all that. Though Hardy is best known as a novelist he was a great poet too. It's not often remembered that close to the end of his life he wrote what is probably one of the greatest cycles of love poems in English - after the death of his first wife. Nothing sentimental there; they are a raw, often bitter examination of the kind of loss we don't just experience, but somehow create for ourselves. 'The Oxen' is a part of the same bitter-sweet vision. It is also one of the few truly great poems about Christmas. It's worth a read anyway.
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.