First off, a little Christmas music to get in the right spirit. Here's Aaron Neville, right on time with our theme song...
When out on the driveway I heard such a clatter,
I dimmed all the lights and turned on Clyde McPhatter.
Now that we have the lights down, a confession: besides being continually engrossed in 19th century studies and the writings of Herman Melville, I'm obsessed with all kinds of authorship mysteries. Truth is, MacDonald P. Jackson had me at “Who.” Yes I pre-ordered his monograph on the disputed authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas," aka “The Night Before Christmas.” Full title: Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"? Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore vs. Henry Livingston Question. Bought it in Kindle and Paperback. Lamentably, this particular case finds Professor Jackson way off his Shakespeare square. Even so, I hope his method will succeed in getting the writers right, after a needed overhaul. For my own warped ends (public knowledge via my other blog Dragooned), I'm ridiculously glad to allow plenty of theoretical room for the merits of using internal textual evidence to establish authorship. With better analytics, maybe function words and phonemes will prove useful outside of early modern drama. If so, by all means let's crunch the numbers 'til Christmas!
The trouble here is that so much external evidence supports the traditional attribution of “The Night Before Christmas” to Clement C. Moore. Professor Jackson grants as he must the prima facie case for Moore yet proceeds as if none of it matters. At their worst, some of his claims for the import of stylistic evidence and certain external facts (Livingston family letters and oral tradition, reindeer names and other aspects of revision history, poems by Moore in manuscript) amount to special pleading of the kind Mac Jackson, Shakespeare expert rightly abhors in strained, counter-factual arguments for the Earl of Oxford as the true author of Shakespeare’s works. The awkwardest contortions occur in chapter 3, minimizing likely textual corruptions in the first, unauthorized newspaper printing; chapter 4, denying the clear and direct influence of Washington Irving's portrait of St. Nicholas in the 1812 and later editions of A History of New York; and chapter 21, trivializing the important early association of "The Night Before Christmas" with the family of Moore's godfather Jonathan Odell. Jonathan's daughter Mary Odell copied out "A Visit from St. Nicholas" which has survived with other poems by Moore and a couple of his letters among the Odell papers at the New Brunswick Museum Archives.
About Jonathan Odell, even Moore's biographer Samuel W. Patterson erred when he supposed, "The Moores do not appear to have kept up his acquaintance." The next piece of documentary evidence is always out there, somewhere. Joy of discovery awaits, and it would be a shame to explain away the import of a great find.
"By the way, opening the files in a research institution is much like reaching into a sock on Christmas morning, you never can be certain as to the goodies that could be found." --Ruby CusackSolutions to authorship mysteries are most satisfying when there’s a real mystery to solve, and when style evidence fits with biographical and historical evidence. For historical background, The Battle for Christmas is indispensable. There Stephen Nissenbaum offers a superb reading of "The Night Before Christmas" which underscores the class tensions and unruly carnival rites historically evoked in celebrations of Christmas and New Year's Day. As Professor Nissenbaum shows, Moore's poem helped domesticate Christmas. In his fine online essay at Common-place, Professor Nissenbaum specifically addresses authorship issues raised by Don Foster in Author Unknown, effectively rebutting Professor Foster's negative portrayal of Moore and helpfully reading "The Night Before Christmas," too.
Stylometry alone rarely (never?) settles authorship questions anyway. But it’s fun to keep trying. Hopefully we’ll learn from our mistakes as we go.
All things being equal (which they're not), Professor Jackson's mission would be a fine one, prompted by the noble scholarly motive of giving credit where it’s due. Employing expertise in what he calls “computational stylistics,” he aims to determine who most likely wrote the world-beloved poem “The Night Before Christmas.” Basically Professor Jackson picks up where Don Foster left off and decides, after a grueling set of mathematical exercises, that Henry Livingston, Jr. probably wrote the best Christmas poem ever, not Clement C. Moore as traditionally supposed.
What we've got here is an entertaining and potentially instructive non-problem. On the positive side, how wonderful to learn about Henry Livingston, discover and enjoy his witty verse, and ponder the odds. And three cheers for anything that inspires people to re-read Moore and begin to appreciate his life and other works. By my calculations, the real probability that Clement C. Moore wrote “The Night Before Christmas” is still right around 102%, give or take a couple of percentage points. Fortunately, however, Professor Jackson has the scruples of a first-rate scholar. He makes his errant way so earnestly that it’s easy to spot the wrong turns. Here they are:
- False premise:
Moore sucksMoore's poetry sucks. All of it except "The Night Before Christmas." Obviously.
- Disregard of historical and biographical evidence.
- Over-confidence in numbers; corresponding indifference to poetical contexts and words that mean something.
The False PremiseRehearsing Don Foster's "'Funeral Elegy' Fiasco," Ron Rosenbaum has traced Professor Foster's overconfidence in numbers and unwise reliance on computers to his "failure of close reading." Problem was,
"he was substituting a silicon chip for a tin ear." --The Shakespeare WarsIn a nutshell, that's it! Sir Brian Vickers, before he became "Sir Brian," more elaborately and devastatingly critiqued Professor Foster's methodology and results in Counterfeiting Shakespeare. As the Funeral Elegy fiasco reminds, anything can happen once you turn words into numbers. Professor Jackson knows this and therefore tries early on to ground his investigation on sound principles of literary criticism. Unsuccessfully, because he takes for granted the very thing he wants to test. Professor Jackson gives away his bias for Livingston in one sentence and appears not to realize the damage done to his desired stance of cool scientific objectivity:
However, no reader of poetry with any sense of literary style and value could compare Moore’s body of verse with Livingston’s without recognizing that “The Night Before Christmas” is a conspicuous misfit within Moore’s canon but would be comfortably at home within Livingston’s.” (11)In other words, only an idiot would align “Night Before Christmas” with the transparently awful poetry of Clement C. Moore. But if that were true, the thing is already proved by chapter 2 so we don’t need to bother with chi-squares, arithmetical means, and standard deviations. We don't even need to turn on the computer. Fortunately for the future survival of computational stylistics as a legitimate method of academic inquiry, it's not true!
Nothing at all against Henry Livingston, but his poems aren’t nearly so mellifluous and magical as Professor Jackson thinks, and Moore’s aren't so bad. Even though Livingston lived decades into the nineteenth century, his poetic sensibility (viewable at the fabulous Henry Livingston website) remained strictly and statically 18th century. The American revolution molded Livingston into a fine patriot, family man and farmer-poet, but I’m here to tell you the Romantic revolution in literature missed him in Poughkeepsie. In that regard, Livingston is like Dylan had Dylan stayed a folkie and never plugged in with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Not that Moore ever went all-Byron or Coleridge on us. Clement C. Moore shares with Livingston the usual eighteenth-century models like Pope, Dryden and Swift, but some of Moore’s later verse gets electrified by the subjective, emotional intensity of Southey and so-called pre-romantics or transitional poets like William Cowper and Oliver Goldsmith. Livingston values classical forms, artifice, reason and rationality, and displays of wit—hence his fondness for rebuses, acrostics, and verse paraphrases from Aesop and the Bible. And burlesques, social and political. Professor Jackson means to dismiss Moore as a “moralist” and “satirist” but see here now, those labels equally apply to Livingston who lectures his sister Joanna to count her blessings and “Meekly attend the ways of higher heav'n!” On her birthday! It’s the latent Romantic in Moore who will express people’s feelings with a degree of emotional intensity, a subjective directness you might find in Livingston’s private letters, but almost never see in his published writings.
Professor Jackson’s conclusion merely restates his introductory premise, 117 pages later:
“No experienced reader of poetry who was familiar with the verse of the two rival candidates could fail to recognize that “The Night Before Christmas” is as uncharacteristic of Moore as it is characteristic of Livingston, with his proven ability to take a child’s view of things, his intense awareness of flying creatures, and his fascination with the miniature.” (128)"No experienced reader"? O! for an esteemed and truly estimable Shakespeare scholar to bluster so. Professor Jackson’s dual purpose premise-conclusion excludes anybody who does not agree with his dim view of Moore's poetry from the ranks of discerning readers. His exclusive club of experienced readers of poetry would not have included William Alfred Jones, the accomplished essayist (as Bryant called him) and Hazlitt fan, who wrote a glowing contemporary review of Moore’s Poems that appeared in the July 17, 1847 issue of the New York Literary World. Niels Henry Sonne the distinguished librarian would not have known enough poetry by Livingston, so he's banned along with his rock solid defense of Moore's authorship on the biographical evidence. More recently, the case for Moore’s authorship has been ably upheld, in print and online, by Seth Kaller, Joe Nickell, and (as mentioned already) Stephen Nissenbaum. All excluded from the club. Professor Jackson does list Stephen Nissenbaum's excellent book and online essay in his bibliography. But he never directly engages with the enlightening discussion in There Arose Such a Clatter of "A Trip to Saratoga," the poem "that shows Moore at his most child-centered." Throughout his monograph Professor Jackson argues with Joe Nickell, without much luck.
The Tin EarIt's most noticeable in the aforesaid rebuttal of Joe Nickell's "The Case of the Christmas Poem" (Manuscripts 55/1:5–10). That's where Professor Jackson's ear appears tinniest. I can't help calling him out, because he makes such a big deal of Livingston-like qualities he hears in these lovely lines:
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below... --A Visit from St. Nicholas
|via Library of Congress|
That goddess refulgent whose far beaming rays,Professor Jackson explains it this way:
Dart full upon error's dark midnight their blaze. --Apollo Rebus
The Goddess refulgent whose far-beaming rays
Can pour upon error meridian blase. --Deity Rebus
That goddess refulgent whose glance pours the day,
Where midnight, and error, and ignorance lay. --War Rebus
"The moon's shedding of bright light that turns night to noonday is a recurrent notion in Livingston's verse that links it to the lines in "Visit." There is nothing comparable in Moore's Poems."Bleah!
What the "recurrent notion" boils down to is one formula repeated three times. At best it's a clever verbal puzzle, signifying one of the needed letters via formulaic allusion. Professor Jackson solves it "T" for Thea, the Titan goddess of shining light. Granted. But play fair now. Livingston's "goddess refulgent" is Thea or Theia the mother of the moon, Selene. And the sun, Helios. And as every crossword freak knows, the Dawn, Eos. You only get Theia as the moon by overreaching. In each Rebus clue the implied Theia is rather the goddess of shining illumination and therefore the enabler of sight, figuratively understood to mean insight or wisdom--as opposed to ignorance and error. As an adjective, refulgent cannot grammatically parallel lustre, a noun. "Mid-day" (noun, again) does match up nicely with "meridian" in one of the three examples, but meridian there mainly conveys the association of the goddess with the bright light of daytime, and night with error. No natural moon is pictured there or anywhere. There's no snow either. No objects. There's literally no material thing whatsoever to be seen in any of Livingston's three Rebus couplets, beyond metaphorical ray-beams from heaven and implied insight.
Nothing comparable in Moore's Poems? Hunting up the words via the handiest of Mac Jackson's Databases with the color-coded alphabetized list of all words in all poems, I find all the key ones used by Moore, not Livingston.
Jiminy Christmas! Moore wrote a whole poem on new fallen snow: Lines / Written After a Snow-Storm. For his kids. [And as I later discovered, also published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel, two months after "A Visit from St. Nicholas."] The word lustre appears only in Moore's poems, two times. Boom, boom. The second instance occurs in a manuscript poem that Professor Jackson should have included in his counts but did not: Biography of the Heart of Clement C. Moore. There Moore as patient scholar (no ballroom beau, he) identifies himself with "constant lustre of the day" produced by "the glow-worm's steady ray." Not only lustre but "lustre of the day" which hey! to my mind qualifies as a compelling "trigram" that ought to have been considered as such in this same chapter 9, "Shared Three-Word Sequences and Parallels." Same goes for the still-smoking title of Moore's From St. Nicholas but let's not get sidetracked.
For "breast" with "snow" Professor Jackson invokes the commonest commonplace "snow-white breast" in Livingston's "As on a Summer's Fervid Day." The playful Poughkeepsian does love breasts, especially on "lovely Delia":
A breast from beauty's model madeMajor Livingston never looks at a non-human breast. Every one of the 14 occurrences of the word breast in known Livingston poems and poems attributable to him belongs to a human being. Breast with reference to any phenomenon of non-human nature occurs only once in Moore, but contextually the image is good and relevant. Lines by Moore figure "breast" in non-human terms as a "mountain's breast," in close thematic connection with all forms of water in nature including snow.
Where all the loves & graces play'd. --Spadille
Howe'er disguis'd by Nature's power,Better yet, who speaks of interesting things and people as "objects"? Who points these "objects" out to his children, and marvels at their clarity and brightness in broad daylight? Moore, of course, 3x (two plural forms, one singular) in "A Trip to Saratoga." For example:
In chrystal ice or snowy shower;
Whether to open sight reveal'd,
Or in the ambient air conceal'd;
In misty vapor if it rest
Upon some lofty mountain's breast,
In clouds bedeck the welkin blue,
Or, heav'n-distill'd, descend in dew;
In earth or sky, wherever found,
The praise of water I'll resound. --The Water-Drinker
All objects shone so lucid and so clear,Likewise the whole point of visiting West Point is to view "objects near" and far.
So sharp each outline on the deep-blue sky,
That what was distant seem'd to draw more near,
And ev'ry tint came radiant to the eye. --A Trip to Saratoga
Here's the clincher I hear somebody asking for, with "objects" and "moon," too.
"Surpris'd, I found the moon's soft silvery rayThe verse-epic "Elphinstone" (Elfin-Stone, get it?) is another poem in manuscript that, like the unpublished Biography of the Heart of Clement C. Moore, defies computerized analysis:
Spread like a mantle o'er the objects round. --Charles Elphinstone
"It is so remote in manner and matter from 'The Night Before Christmas' that breaking it down into sections and offering counts of all the authorial data is scarcely warranted."Fortunately, one grand consequence of Professor Jackson's research and the monumental work done by Mary S. Van Deusen is the online availability now of most (not all) Moore's poems, including From St. Nicholas among miscellaneous manuscript poems, and many others transcribed from the Poetry Manuscript Book of Clement C. Moore, now held by the Museum of the City of New York. These lines from "Charles Elphinstone" are worth another look:
"Surpris'd, I found the moon's soft silvery rayThe "Elphinsone" example in context invites both literal and metaphorical readings. Dying, the hero recalls this vivid experience of illuminating moonlight which he perceives in figurative terms as "an emblem of my death!" The poet goes on to claim another level of significance for the natural, physical sight of objects lit up by the moon, as a literal foretaste of the soul's experience of the "light celestial that guide's it on angels' wings to heaven. Bottom line: there is no bottom, as Ron Rosenbaum perceives in Shakespeare. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen....
Spread like a mantle o'er the objects round. --Charles Elphinstone
To resume counting... How many instances of objects is that altogether? Six total for Moore, paying no attention to instances where object means something like "goal" or "purpose." For Livingston? Just one, maybe, in Tears of Science where "pleasing objects" refer to distracting features of beautiful women. Dimples and eyes, of alluring females.
No way around it, Professor Jackson badly misreads the best textual parallel he can muster. To his credit, he picked glorious lines to discuss, but he can't hear the words, and won't grapple with their meaning in context. Bias for Livingston, against Moore makes him miss the most pertinent verbal associations and where they point. Moon, breast, snow, objects, and daylight lustre all harmonizingly attest to Clement C. Moore's authorship of "The Night Before Christmas."
Contempt of BiographyIn a generous mood, Professor Jackson grants that Moore unquestionably “loved his wife and children.” That statement makes me think he has not looked into Moore’s life or poetry much. If he had, he might have paused there to consider earth-moving life events and their likely after-effects: getting married and becoming a father, most obviously, and later the devastating emotional impact on Moore of his wife’s death.
Let’s make a pact: never to grab examples from a poem, say, without reading it first. I’m thinking now of Moore’s poem “To Southey.” Professor Jackson and Don Foster before him cite the same line from “To Southey” in order to score the same ho-hum point in favor of Foster's proposition that Moore wrote a supposedly bad Santa Claus poem. So both Moore and the author of "Old Santeclaus" adopt the expression "make their home." Fine, a commonplace. When you stop trashing Moore and actually read his verse, you see the line in question embraces what scholar Herbert F. Tucker in Epic: Britain's Heroic Muse 1790-1910 calls the “proliferant psychedelia” in Southey's mythological romances, trippiest in The Curse of Kehama.
Moore in To Southey goes on to speak in profoundly sad, personal terms as a bereaved father and husband. Look, the Moores’ daughter Emily died in 1828 at the age of six. Clement C. Moore’s wife Eliza died in April 1830. Another daughter named Charity, age 14, died in December of the same year. So when Moore reads the dedication to “The Tale of Paraguay,” he can’t help but respond with intense emotions to Southey’s feeling words on the death of loved ones, especially his infant daughter. What Professors Foster and Jackson miss about “To Southey” is heartbreaking:
I saw my wife, then, to the grave descend,Biography makes a difference. Professor Jackson constructs a fictional scenario for how it went down in 1844, and imagines how much “moral courage” Moore would have needed to confess he never wrote "A Visit From St. Nicholas." Moore's imaginary moral failure goes from hypothetical to practically certain when Professor Jackson graciously pardons it as just another example of human frailty. These little slips happen to the best of us, even lawmakers and priests. Ah! humanity!
Beloved of my heart, my bosom friend.
So interwoven were our joys, our pains
That, as I weeping followed her remains,
I thought to tell her of the mournful scene—
I could not realize the gulph between. --To Southey
Moore lost his wife and two daughters long before he published "A Visit From St. Nicholas" over his own name in the 1844 Poems. He had perspective on fame. His personal fortune was never at risk. Not only that, the 1844 volume shows how eager Moore was to give credit wherever due. See how carefully he acknowledges his late wife and then living friends for verses they composed. Moral courage? How hard could it have been to add something like, “The following is a holiday favorite, ascribed to me by mistake." Or "I know not the original author of these popular verses, so beloved by my children.” Especially since by all accounts he wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for light family entertainment, with absolutely no idea of making it a personal monument in verse. From Moore’s perspective, he more likely needed a healthy shot of liquid courage to come clean and confess having written it.
People in the best position to know attributed “A Visit from St. Nicholas” to Clement C. Moore, early and confidently. As shown in a previous melvilliana post, Orville L. Holley on December 28, 1836 stated that he learned the author's identity only months, not years after he first published "A Visit From St. Nicholas" in The Troy Sentinel. The whole point of the 1837 New-York Book of Poetry was to name names, to identify praiseworthy New York authors of formerly “fugitive” poems in newspapers and magazines. What, the experienced writer, editor, native New Yorker and Columbia grad, the ultimate Knickerbocker Charles Fenno Hoffman got this one wrong? Not likely. I protest the implied assumption that critics now are so much smarter than brilliant journalists were or could have been in the benighted 19th century. Also, the appearance of other poems by Clement C. Moore in the 1837 volume suggests that Moore might have corresponded with Hoffman or another agent of the publisher, in advance of publication. Somehow or other Hoffman got hold of three additional poems by Moore for inclusion along with "Visit" in the New-York Book of Poetry: To A Lady (dated 1804); From a Father to His Children; and From a Husband to His Wife.
And how ironic is this. William Alfred Jones, the best and most sympathetic reviewer of Moore's Poems in the 19th century, was a great grandson of Philip Livingston. Yes, indeed. The most eloquent champion of Clement C. Moore's poetry ever, was a relative of Henry Livingston, Jr.
All honor to the Livingstons! The best chapter in Professor Jackson's book honors the Livingston family with a respectful and informative chronicle of the claim by some descendants and sympathizers that Henry Livingston, Jr. wrote "The Night Before Christmas." Predictably, however, the best piece of external evidence, poetical "visions of gaiety" in pre-1823 family correspondence is pretty weak. Commonplaces, again, and no sugar-plums. But so what. Again, all honor to Major Livingston and his descendants. Personally, I'm most grateful for all the historical information, fabulous texts and great holiday fun at Mary S. Van Deusen's website. Paying respectful attention to Livingston family narratives, I think alternative explanations could reasonably account for the mistaken impression that Henry wrote "The Night Before Christmas." Conjecture #1: Thanks to the great Henry Livingston website we know of Major Henry Livingston's regular service in composing the Carrier's Address for the Poughkeepsie Journal, traditionally published on New Year's Day. The experience of hearing the author deliver lines like this
But hark what a clatter! the Jolly bells ringing,conceivably might have morphed over time and blended with other holiday memories of reading or hearing "A Visit From St. Nicholas." (If you're smiling at my hypocrisy here, after complaining about Professor Jackson's fantasy of moral failure by Moore, please consider that the facts are already for Moore. Another advantage: I don't have to impute bad faith to the Livingstons or anybody, whereas Professor Jackson does.)
The lads and the lasses so jovially singing,
Tis New-Years they shout and then haul me along
In the midst of their merry-make Juvenile throng;
But I burst from their grasp: unforgetful of duty
To first pay obeisence to wisdom and Beauty,
My conscience and int'rest unite to command it,
And you, my kind PATRONS, deserve & demand it.
On your patience to trespass no longer I dare,
So bowing, I wish you a HAPPY NEW YEAR.
--1819 Carrier's Address, Poughkeepsie Journal
As Don Foster found, Moore's poem appeared on the front page of the Poughkeepsie Journal on January 16, 1828, reprinted from the Philadelphia National Gazette--without comment and without naming the author.
So Henry Livingston possibly could have seen it before he passed away at the age of 79 on February 29, 1828. Maybe a family member clipped or copied it down by hand, who knows?
The viral spread of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" via newspaper printings and re-printings guaranteed an authorship controversy somewhere down the road. Sure enough, in December 1843 a reader submitted "Visit" to the Washington, D. C. National Intelligencer as the work of Joseph Wood, a recently deceased artist. The National Intelligencer duly reprinted it, then quickly published a correction on December 28, 1843. Unaware of the published correction, Charles King the editor of the New York American asked the Washington editor to reprint a letter from Clement C. Moore acknowledging his authorship. In 1888, a holiday memorial article in The Churchman observed how the expected "legion of would be authors" demanding credit for "The Night Before Christmas" never materialized, and explained their non-appearance as satisfying evidence that "a well-informed public has been early possessed of the knowledge that the author was Clement Clarke Moore":
"Probably no American poem is more widely and favorably known than this, and the only wonder is that it has not been claimed by a legion of would be authors. It is doubtless because a well-informed public has been early possessed of the knowledge that the author was Clement Clarke Moore, son of Bishop Benjamin Moore, the second Bishop of New York. What is less generally known is that Mr. Moore studied for Holy Orders, but never presented himself for the ministry." --The Churchman - December 22, 1888
“Counting is imperative…”Professor Jackson conducts us through a series of tests comparing A to B, the set of Moore’s poems to the set of Livingston's known poems. Not all of Moore's poems, though--some good ones are missing from the data set of Moore's "corpus." On shaky ground, Professor Jackson withholds from the Moore-side (besides “The Night Before Christmas”) the manuscript "Biography of the Heart of Clement C. Moore" (Ouch!), the manuscript sonnet from Petrarch, the verse translation from Aeschylus' Prometheus, and Moore's "Ode to Nice." The last three apparently are forbidden as translations, but the reason why verse translations don't count as legitimate poetry needs a more thorough discussion than Professor Jackson gives. That discussion also would need to explain the reason for including Livingston's paraphrases from Aesop and verses based on biblical passages in Habakkuk, Hezekiah, Isaiah, and Job. Professor Jackson does include The Mischievous Muse (of dancing) which Moore rendered from a canzonet by his friend and Italian teacher Lorenzo Da Ponte. Good to have in the mix, but keeping in "Muse" ("translated from the Italian of Signor Da Ponte") makes the translation-bar seem all the more arbitrary. Speaking of subjective and questionable value judgements, Professor Jackson would prefer not to bother with Moore's verse-epic in manuscript, "Charles Elphinstone."
"Charles Elphinstone" is a long pseudo-autobiographical "epic" blank-verse narrative about the struggle between the powers of heaven and hell for the hero's "immortal soul." It is so remote in manner and matter from "The Night Before Christmas" that breaking it down into sections and offering counts of all the authorial data is scarcely warranted.Nevertheless... Professor Jackson does in fact give raw counts and percentages for the whole of "Charles Elphinstone," same as for the other manuscript poems (except that translated sonnet): Moore markers, high- and medium-high-frequency words, phoneme pairs, articles definite and indefinite, and attributive adjectives. Whew! Just when I thought Elfin-Stone was benched, he's back in the game. Good. Still, the unjustified exclusion of some Moore data and inclusion of some Livingston data just possibly invalidates the whole experiment.
--MacDonald P. Jackson - Who Wrote - page 91
Within each set, A & B, the things Jackson chooses to count are literally meaningless bits, inconsequential and perhaps random in their distribution. He needs to explain but never does exactly how these comparisons establish authorship. Especially considering the diversity of rhetorical aims and settings in occasional poems by both writers. The “More like Livingston” vs. “More like Moore” game gets tiresome fast. Or not--since, like I said, amazing things can happen when you turn words into numbers. As Professor Jackson demonstrates with admirable clarity and precision, some individual poems by Clement C. Moore are more like poems written by Henry Livingston, Jr. in some respects. And wouldn’t you know it, some poems by Livingston are in certain respects more Moore-like. Crazy!
In chapter 6, Professor Jackson anticipates objections like mine to his numbers games. Aiming to de-mystify his method of statistical analysis, he explains he's only counting because he has to:
“But the claim that a particular poem, play, or novel is “more like” the work of A than B is essentially a claim about frequency—that A employs a certain kind of linguistic unit (sentence, phrase, word, phoneme) more (or less) often than B, relative to the sizes of their respective corpora. And to make the claim good, counting is imperative…”Agreed then, we have to count things. Count what? is the question. Since we're all about establishing authorship, here again the methodology deserves a more expansive discussion than we get. How and why exactly do common words discriminate better than uncommon ones? As hinted at the outset, I myself am abnormally interested in the possibilities here. Granting the vaunted success of such tests when investigating authorship of plays written by professional playwrights in Renaissance England, I want to know if and how they should be adapted for American amateurs writing mostly occasional verse in a different century.
Without another chapter on methodology, it seems like Professor Jackson just enjoys counting the wrong things. Instances of "that." Articles, definite and indefinite. Turns out, Livingston uses the definite article “the” way more than Moore. Which means he uses the AH phoneme way more than Moore. And now we’re getting somewhere? Yes we are, in fact, only it's not where Professor Jackson meant to go. Naturally, Livingston's usual anapestic meter pumps up usage of just the things Professor Jackson has been trying to count. Meter has to skew usage of "the" and "a" and "and." And how many other elements being counted, becomes the overwhelmingly pertinent question.
Moeraki Boulders strewn along Professor Jackson's sandy beach are the building blocks of anapests.
"don’t be fooled into thinking they are the only ones – there’s tons!"To his everlasting credit, Professor Jackson counts the rocks in his way and eventually recognizes them as functions of meter. Indeed, if you're on a deadline and need to cut to the chase, go right to page 97. I told you Professor Jackson has scruples, and here in chapter 18 is where he proves it by walking back earlier claims in chapter 7 for the discriminating value of attributive adjectives:
--Backpacker Guide .NZ
So it seems likely that the meter militates against the liberal use of adjectives.... It would be reasonable to infer that Livingston's lower rates than Moore's are in part due to his much greater use of anapests, and that Moore could conceivably have written a poem in anapests that was as sparing of adjectives as "The Night Before Christmas."With that concession, it's all over but the crying.
--MacDonald P. Jackson - Who Wrote - pages 97-98
"Anapestic tetrameter is more familiar from comic poetry, like Twas the night before Christmas, Yertle the Turtle, and other Doctor Seuss stories." --The Hip-Hop Guru
As we've seen, where Professor Jackson picks good parts to examine, his statistical apparatus discourages context and meaning. This flawed approach he boldly finesses as a virtue. He's avoiding bias. In the effort to be objective and not subjective, he will stick like white on rice to meaningless bits of sentences and words. Numbers of counted bits are paraded in tables over many short chapters, with diminishing concern for the meaning or merit of any individual poem by either poet.
For purposes of really useful comparing, the kind that considers distinctive meanings and contexts, the Henry Livingston website offers a great database of all the words in most (not all) poems of Livingston and Moore. You might wonder, whose working vocabulary does “The Night Before Christmas” witness, Moore’s or Livingston’s? Maybe this fantastic online resource could settle the question without ever having to worry about counting and sorting function words and phonemes. In view of Professor Jackson’s stated aim and statistical methods, it’s reasonable to expect his book to include somewhere a table giving relative frequencies of words that actually mean something: nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs.
Good opportunities to examine meaningful words would seem to be in chapter 14 on “Very High-Frequency Words” and chapter 15 on “Favorite Expressions and Quirks of Style.” But Chapter 14 again exposes the basic flaw in methodology. If I understand this right, forms of be, the second commonest lexeme in English after the, have to be excluded because they're hard to count. Words that threaten to mean something risk immediate exile as “likely to be sensitive to context.” When the purified method yields results that tend to support Moore, Professor Jackson blinks. Turns out, usage in “The Night Before Christmas” of the next very high-frequency word (“to”) statistically “is closer to Moore’s mean” than Livingston’s. Oops.
Again in Chapter 15, Jackson isolates words and phrases that can't mean anything (some; oft; many a) apart from context, yet he flaunts the five-page chapter as “strong stylistic evidence” for Livingston over Moore. Among the supposedly distinctive and "conspicuous" markers of Moore’s style that Professor Jackson adduces in chapter 15 are expressions that occur 12 times (“at length”), 16 times (“in vain”), and 17 times (“many a”), not yet counting usages in Moore’s manuscript poems.
Sometimes it's good to turn off the computer and go for a drive. Driving through “The Night Before Christmas” while looking for meaningful and potentially distinctive words to examine, I find myself slowing down at ‘kerchief and braking at brains. These days we don’t hear "‘kerchief" much, and the use of “brains” likewise seems a little peculiar. Moore’s poem “A Visit to Saratoga” also features (besides Dad with multiple kids, a theme close to Moore's heart that is absent in Livingston's verse-world) a “kerchief." In conjunction with “cap,” very nice. As for brains, I half expected the speaker to say he and Mamma had “just settled down.” That's how Perry Como read it in 1953. Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians likewise sang "just settled down."
BrainsLouis Armstrong reads “settled our brains.” Wynton Marsalis, too. So Jazz cats love the brains line!
Who's the jazziest, would you guess: Dr. Moore or Major Livingston?
You got it, Dr. Moore. Moore's "corpus" boasts brains on top of brains: nineteen instances (total of combined singular and plural forms), many contextually similar to the usage in “The Night Before Christmas.” The one case of brains in a poem possibly by Henry Livingston, Jr., Filly and Wolf, uses the word with anatomical precision in reference to a dead animal. Spoiler alert: Filly kicks Wolf's brains out. Here's a veritable Moore marker, if ever there was one. Livingston never uses the word brains with reference to human psychology, thoughts or reasoning, dreams or schemes. Like Moore elsewhere, Livingston writes mind, as in the "undisturb'd mind" he wishes brother Beekman, or the "magnanimous mind" of Columbus in the Hero Rebus. In his prose Description of the Baby House of Miss Biddy Puerilla, Livingston has to say "cerrebellum."
The word brains is not required by the verse form or rhetorical situation or the homely holiday setting of “The Night Before Christmas.” Ergo, brains might well be a meaningful reflex of the author’s style and just possibly, if you’re in the mood to stretch, his personality. Hmmm. On that note, maybe brain marks the distinguishing Romantic or transitional, "pre-romantic" quality in Moore. Romantic qualities would be strongest and most perceptible, where brains in Moore's poetry are associated with the imagination, with dreams and visions, or with unsettled, disturbed patterns of thinking and feeling.
Moore’s poem A Trip to Saratoga opens on a houseful of kids, and Spring Fever everywhere disturbing Dad enough to “raise a tumult in the coolest brains.” As in "The Night Before Christmas," people’s brains in Moore’s poems rarely stay settled. The tee-totaling speaker of The Water Drinker fears and fixates on the brain-perplexing effects of alcohol. For the pleasure-seeking speaker of Moore’s Lines Written after a Season of Yellow Fever, exciting visions of dancing at the next fancy ball “rush wildly through my brain.” Impossibly abstract intellectual problems “puzzle deep reasoners’ brains” in The Pig and the Rooster.
Moore employs brain/s nineteen times, and not only for comic effects. In mournful lines To Southey, memories of the suffering endured by the speaker’s deceased loved ones are figured as “spectres that infest my brain!” These haunting visions painfully and pathetically replace the happy expectations of his former days, which Moore retrospectively calls the “faithless prospect of a dreaming brain.”
Pat, the infatuated speaker of Irish Valentine, can’t get the mental picture of his beloved out of his head:
“But, sure, thro' my brain how your image kept jaunting!”At evening balls in the resort town of Newport, the blaring music and bright lights “confound” the eye and what else? Right, “the brain.” Charles Elphinstone features six instances of the word brain, unsettled variously in that manuscript poem by anxieties, fever, mysteries, dreams, and delirium. Also in a serious vein, Lines on the Sisters of Charity depict the excited mind of a party-girl as a “giddy brain.”
Afterthought 11/10/2016: The banishment of Moore's Prometheus chorus from Professor Jackson's database keeps a 20th instance of brain in hiding. Prometheus chained to the rock needs help, but the humans he gifted with fire are mere "mortals" who remain powerless to challenge almighty Jove
As dreams which haunt the fever'd brain. (Revised in the 1844 Poems volume to "feverish brain.")
Visions and DreadBesides brains, the words visions and dread also attest to the compatible style of other poems by Moore when compared with “The Night Before Christmas.” Some but not all instances are reviewed by Joe Nickell and listed with other verbal parallels.
Visions are a great Moore marker. Moore has them, Livingston don't. Eight instances of visions plural in Moore’s poems, plus seven in the singular form, add up to a total of fifteen instances--not including those tasty plums in “The Night Before Christmas.”
By contrast, Livingston uses vision only in the singular form and only one time, in a literally, deliberately dread-ful verse paraphrase from Job; and he employs “visionary” one time when versifying Aesop’s fable of the frogs who wanted a king. About the Job poem, it's interesting to note the third-person point of view in Livingston's paraphrase. Livingston looks at Job objectively. Byron by contrast renders the same biblical passage in the first person, in the lines beginning A spirit pass'd before me. Byron identifies with Job.
The “visions” in “Cholera” as in "The Night Before Christmas" are happy dreams, of carefree wining and dining and dancing. The youthful recipient of Moore’s “Valentine” enjoys “visions of delight,” meaning the prospect of a bright future. Again in “Water Drinker” visions are dreams—this time bad dreams, “goblin visions of the night” brought on by drinking alcoholic beverages. In “From a Husband to His Wife” the speaker remembers rapturous but fleeting “fairy visions,” poetically conveying the experience of being young and in love. Moore’s Wine Drinker cites “glowing thoughts and visions” among the heady benefits of drinking in moderation. Both instances of visions in Moore’s Lines Written after a Season of Yellow Fever refer to dancing, the anticipation of which engenders “visions bright” in the heart of the dancer as she excitedly beholds, in her imagination, “visions flying round, as meteors bright.” Her visions dance, quite like the visions of sugarplums in “The Night Before Christmas.” Sunrise at West Point inspires “visions” of nothing in particular—undefined, but strongly associated, again, with dreams. Indeed, Moore’s West Point “visions” at sunrise are explicitly the product of a “morning dream.”
The animated “vision” of Moore's "Apology" is diminutive (“far below the human size”) like St. Nick in his “Visit,” an elvish taskmaster who keeps Moore from abandoning the business of scholarship for the sake of pleasures like dancing and drinking. Also like St. Nick, Moore’s friendly but firm “Guardian” does not stay long but disappears, soon as his work is done:
So spoke the friendly power; then, waving lightThen there’s "dread." Don Foster malevolently but accurately established the word dread as a Moore marker. Foster made dread out to be a bad sign, but a good clue to Moore's identity as the first Grinch who stole Christmas. Stephen Nissenbaum answers with impeccable logic that
His azure pinions, vanish'd from my sight.
--Apology for Not Accepting an Invitation to a Ball
“in his own terms the appearance of this word in ‘The Night Before Christmas’ (and at a key moment in its narrative) ought to constitute textual evidence of Moore's authorship.” --There Arose Such a ClatterJoe Nickell lists a couple of examples of dread in the online Comparison of Phraseology at Seth Kaller’s website. One particularly revealing instance, not listed by Nickell, occurs in Moore’s poem “A Trip to Saratoga.”
Ah no! her ev'ry word and ev'ry lookStephen Nissenbaum in There Arose Such a Clatter very helpfully contextualizes “A Trip to Saratoga” as a light verse satire, a humorous travelogue in the manner of Byron’s Childe Harold only more family-friendly. The father-with-kids theme of the whole poem recalls the setting of "The Night Before Christmas." Besides that, the usage of dread in the lines quoted above is remarkably similar to the usage of dread in “The Night Before Christmas”:
Proclaim'd that no such fate she need to dread; --A Trip to Saratoga
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,In both cases, dread occurs as an end-rhyme. Not only end-rhyme, but end rhyme in the infinitive form “to dread.” Moreover, the two examples exhibit parallel thought, structure, and syntax. Thought: facial features display harmlessness. Structure: next line begins with synonymous verbs, both in the past tense (proclaimed/gave to know). Syntax: negatively constructed with “no such” in “Saratoga” comparable to “nothing” in “The Night Before Christmas.”
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
|via Library of Congress|
Clement C. Moore's wondering eyes and ear
You should have heard just what I seen.... --Bo DiddleyOne instance of wondering, compressed for the sake of meter--imabic tetrameter--to wond'ring, does not appear in Joe Nickell’s Comparison of Phraseology:
Thus whisper'd in his wond'ring ear. --To the Nymphs of Mount HarmonyIn a conventional move of pastoral verse, Moore’s shepherd in “To the Nymphs of Mount Harmony” hears in his “wond’ring ear” the complaints of an Arcadian “sprite” or fairy (or elf, like jolly old you-know-who), a “mournful spirit of the wood.” He tells of his enchantment by a fiend, the cause of his present captivity in the woods. The imprisoned elf hopes the nymphs will return to the woods someday and release him from the evil spell. What the whispering spirit misses most is their dancing and singing. If those fine maids ever do come back, he vows to join them.
When what to my wondering eyes should appear... --A Visit from St. NicholasIt takes a wondering ear to hear talking elves and fairies in the woods, just like it takes wondering eyes to see Santa Claus on the lawn, under the moonlight. Clement C. Moore had the right hardware.
Or is it software. Uh-oh. This always happens around the Holidays. Let me untangle my metaphors and get back to you.
Gratuitous correction, only a stocking-stuffer:
- Bulwer as in Edward Bulwer-Lytton is misspelled 4x as “Bulmer.”
- The surname of Scott's Dutch smuggler in Guy Mannering is misspelled 3x as "Halteraick." This seems to be a fairly common misreading of scanned 19th century texts by OCR systems. It's Hatteraick, with two "t's."
and another: In footnote 19 to Chapter 3 (page 179), "Blitzem" is a mistake for Blitzen. An obvious typo, just when Jackson wants us to read Moore's changes to reindeer names as "suspicious." Oops.
and another: On page 119, the printed text reads "Sarah Hackett" when Jackson obviously refers to "Sarah Sackett." Sackett not Hackett.