Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What is past and passing

[Snow on Screens, photo by Tom Tucker]

I had an odd feeling/thought yesterday. Waiting at the acupuncturists office, I looked through Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year (not all men - I suspect it once was). It was from May. Tim Russert was still alive, and Obama just one column. More, there were big ads for big expensive cars like Dodge Rams. And one finance ad that said something like “Have you earned so much money you don’t know what to do with it? We can help you.” It was as if that was an old world that had completely disappeared. Is that what the past really is, always?

I didn’t think that at first. I just felt small and isolated in my small, quiet world, so far from that busy, accomplishing world that one of us must not really exist. It seethes, roils, everyone trying to change things that change themselves every moment.

Here, on the other hand, is an old poem I first read when I was in my twenties. I remember how it brought a sense of mystery and depth to a life that had very little of either.

"The Oxen" was first published Christmas Eve 1915 to an England involved in trench warfare and scientific rationalism. The belief that animals actually knelt at midnight on Christmas Eve was still widespread. (These were the descendents of the animals believed to be in the stable when Christ was born.) One scholar says Hardy "must have felt like a remnant from an earlier age of faith as the great war raged on, sweeping aside the works of hundreds of years of history."

A few words are unfamiliar; "barton" (a farmyard) and "coomb" (a valley between steep hills) are regionalisms that would have had an archaic feel even in 1915.

It is interesting to me that one scholar believed he had identified the actual barn Hardy was thinking of. The simplicity and reality of that takes me back to that calm, non-accomplishing self in the doctor's waiting room, as well as to the solid sweet-smelling miracle of a baby's birth.

The Oxen
By Thomas Hardy

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 believe
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve
"Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder comb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

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