What is the most significant symbol in Thomas Hardy's poem "The Oxen," and why?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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One of the most important symbols in Thomas Hardy's "The Oxen" is knees. Knees are not merely a piece of human anatomy in this poem but a symbol of submission, even subordination. It can be gathered that Hardy sets the poem in a family's home on Christmas Eve at midnight, which we can see from both the opening and ending lines of the first stanza: "Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock," meaning 12 a.m. on Christmas Eve, and "By the embers in hearthside ease," meaning by a fireside that has been burning so long that only the embers are glowing. Also in this opening stanza, Hardy describes whom he calls an "elder" as saying, "'Now they are all on their knees.'" We can presume that by "elder," Hardy is describing an older family member, and this older family member is telling the story of Christmas Day. The poem continues to describe animals being pictured in their pen kneeling to baby Jesus.

The image of animals kneeling holds significance because, the poem not only describes the animals as being humble, submissible, and therefore subordinate before Christ, the poem further relates human beings to the kneeling animals. We particularly see Hardy relate the kneeling animals to human beings when the poem's speaker refers to the faith human beings have in the idea that the animals did indeed kneel on that historic day. The animals' faith in Christ or submission to Christ, leading them to kneel, becomes likened to humans' own faith or submission to Christ. In fact, the speaker is so convinced the animals did indeed kneel that he says in the last two stanzas, should someone say to him on Christmas Eve, "'Come; see the oxen kneel,'" he would willingly, blindly follow the person out to the barn to witness the event. In this sense, the acceptance of the fact that the animals knelt represents a form of blind faith. Hence, the animals kneeling in submission represents humankind's tendency to also kneel in submission in blind faith. Using kneeling as a symbol of submission, it can be argued that the poem questions mankind's tendency to submit, especially to religion, especially to submit in blind faith to the point of becoming subordinate.

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