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There was a question on Lit regarding Thomas Hardy's poem "The Oxen".

The poem features heavily Christian symbolism. It is set on Christmas Eve, features a manger (a "strawy pen"), and vocabulary such as "meek", "kneel", "hoping". It is even unclear if the person claiming the oxen are kneeling is the savior himself, or merely a would-be prophet.

But my question is:

  • Why might have Hardy chosen oxen for this allegorical poem?

Blake, for instance, tends to use the lamb in allegorical poems on the savior, although oxen do feature in his engravings and symbolism.

  • What is the symbolism of oxen in general, and in relation to Christian ideas speficically?
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    Isn't this just something like the birth of Jesus is so magnificent that even animals will bow down to him? – bleh Jul 31 '17 at 19:51
  • @bleh the Hardy poem is rather more complex than that--I've been pondering it for several days now, and it seems to be more of a comment on the nature of hope, which goes back to Hesiod. – DukeZhou Jul 31 '17 at 20:09
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    This is something of interest: the first Hebrew letter aleph used to be a pictograph of an ox. Being that aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the poem may refer to the beginning of Jesus' life on Earth, there may be something to this. Also Jesus is called "the beginning and the end." – A Child of God Jul 31 '17 at 20:20
  • would that have something to do with Taurus and Ares in Astrology? – Mishu 米殊 Aug 1 '17 at 2:58
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    Ok. i recall the ancient sacrifice used to use ox/bull in ritual ceremony. it developed to use lamb, what i recalled the earliest record is Abraham used to replace Issac. there is also the progressing from one astrological cycle to another every 26000 years (?). Abraham's time was from Taurus to Ares, people worshiped the golden bull. Jesus from Ares to Pisces, now is from Pisces to Aquarius. so every one new era begins it symbolized by sacrifice the old. therefore instead of killing the ox, Hardy made it kneeling? – Mishu 米殊 Aug 2 '17 at 5:26
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It seems that Blake's definition of oxen is likely the direct source of Hardy's choice, although I am still quite interested in oxen in prior mythological canons. (Hardy lived in an era when many ideas from Asian cultures were making their way to England.)

From A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake by Samuel Foster Damon:

The Ox is a castrated bull, who drags the plow, and is slaughtered for meat. He is docile and patient, although there are "moping terrors" in his brain. "He who the Ox to wrath has mov'd / Shall never be by Woman lov'd"; it would require an excess of cruelty to rouse the wrath of such a gentle creature or his human equivalent.
Source: Google Books, ibid. p.313

Based on Hardy's political and social views, the ox is a much better representation of the common man in an industrial society, as a docile beast of burden whose ultimate fate is as "meat for the machine". Although commoners may not have owned land in pre-Industrial societies, farming, even nominally, for oneself is quite different from factory work. (See Orwell's Animal Farm and Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, which has implications beyond feminism, for similar explication of economic systems as means of controlling human bodies.)

The idea that it requires an "excess of cruelty" to rouse the beast to wrath may be taken as a comment on labor conditions leading to strikes and massacres of workers in Industrial societies up through the early 20th century. This may not be implicit in the poem, but is supportable.

More implicit is the association of this poem with the first World War, during which it was published.

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