CHRISTMAS CATTLE by Cori Martin (2008)

Could it be true, old Thomas Hardy’s tale:
at midnight, Christmas Eve, the oxen kneel
to Bethlehem? Our parents slept. We kept
a vigil till the magic hour, then crept
outside, across the glittering, frozen snow
to see this vision promised long ago.

And, Lo! Behold! There were the cattle in
the moonlit barn, a huddled congregation
mangered, softly lowing like singers choired
in their stalls. Yet, I feel some cattle shared
the doubts then sprouting in my childish thought.
For some were kneeling there. And some were not.

Cori Martin’s poem captures not only the magic and innocence of childhood, but also the natural feelings of doubt that disturb a rational mind confronted with the illogic of miracles. The poem connects to modern sensibilities, and the struggle to reconcile nostalgia with practicality, doubt with faith, dreams with reality. It allows for questioning, self-expression, and acceptance of diversity. After all, not all cattle (or people) have the urge to respond in the same way. Christmas Cattle alludes to an older poem by Thomas Hardy published on Christmas Eve 1915. It also recalls an event in the poet’s childhood, and his fervent hope that the miracle could be true.

THE OXEN by Thomas Hardy (1915)

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.

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2 Responses to Christmas Cattle: A poem by Cori Martin

  1. Emily says:

    Thanks for putting up Thomas Hardy’s poem together with Cori’s — enlightens those of us who no longer spend time reading poetry!

    • Stephanie Martin says:

      Say it aint so Emily! You read poetry every week I am sure.
      I see more relationships now between the two poems. Hardy’s people ’round the hearth are a “flock” as they tell stories, as if they are a congregation, or a herd. My sister’s cows are “a huddled congregation, mangered,” and, as in church, they sing in “choir stalls.” So in switching up the shared habits of humans and animals Cori makes the cattle’s anthropomorphized kneeling seem not so far-fetched.
      Both poems refer to an incident from the innocent past, and try to make sense of it in the cold, reasoning present. Cori uses some old fashioned phrases like “Lo! Behold!” I think Hardy would recognize that language as a signal for story telling. He expresses his own frustration that people in 1915 had lost their imagination, their ability to suspend disbelief. I’m sure Cori was thinking of some of the characters Hardy creates in his novels who have the same struggle between faith and agnosticism.
      Anyway, better stop talking about poetry and get ready for the show!

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