Saturday, December 24, 2016

Melville's Santa Claus

Drawing by F. O. C. Darley via Library of Congress
Like Clement C. Moore's little "elf" with his "miniature sleigh" and "tiny reindeer," Herman Melville's Santa Claus is a fairy:
... a wight
More than mortal, with something of man,
Whisking about, an invisible spright,
Almoner blest of Oberon's clan.  --Stockings in the Farm-house Chimney
Verbal echoes of Moore's A Visit from St. Nicholas aka "'The Night Before Christmas" in Melville's "Stockings" poem begin in the title with the stockings and chimney. The children are there, of course, only now they have names. (Two boys and two girls, same number and gender as the children Herman and Lizzie had when they lived in Pittsfield, on the farm called "Arrowhead.") Like the children in Moore's poem, Melville's wait "in hope." Moore said "In hopes," and Melville says "in hope" twice, managing through repetition to make them plural.

Melville's Santa gets his sleigh from Moore's St. Nick. And his elvish features, too, borrowed from Moore and amplified by Melville. That habit of "Whisking about" displayed by Melville's Santa imitates the "lively and quick" manner of Moore's St. Nick. Moore's Santa may be "chubby and plump" but he never waddles or dawdles. When Santa moves, he springs. Or flies. And Melville's Santa arrives in triple anapests (the delight / to believe / in a wight), the metrical dress of Moore's Santa.

Melville's invocation of Oberon makes explicit the implied associations in Moore's poem between Santa Claus and the fairy world, particularly as represented by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and by Michael Drayton in Nymphidia. Drayton's fairy mythology surely influenced the naming of Santa's Reindeer. Associations with Oberon's fairy kingdom are unmistakable by the end of Moore's "Visit," when Santa flies up and away like the down of a thistle--just the stuff that cushions Queen Mab's chariot:
          With thistle-down they shod it:
For all her maidens much did fear,
If OBERON had chanc'd to hear,
That MAB his queen should have been there,
           He would not have abode it.  --Nymphidia: The Court of Fairy
Please don't make me explicate the last stanza of Melville's "Stockings in the Farm-house Chimney." It's Christmas Eve!

Alright, after the kids fall asleep (hahahaha) maybe I'll whisper something like this: when Melville or his appointed speaker says "Stay, Truth, O stay," he or she really means it. Now turn off The Simpsons and go to bed or Santa will never get here.

Drawing by F. O. C. Darley via Library of Congress

Stockings in the Farm-house Chimney

Happy, believe, this Christmas Eve
Are Willie and Rob and Nellie and May—
Happy in hope! in hope to receive
These stockings well stuffed from Santa Claus' sleigh.

O the delight to believe in a wight
More than mortal, with something of man,
Whisking about, an invisible spright,
Almoner blest of Oberon's clan.

Stay, Truth, O stay in a long delay!
Why should these little ones find you out?
Let them forever with fable play,
Evermore hang the Stocking out!  --Herman Melville
As mentioned in a previous melvilliana post, the drawings for the 1862 illustrated edition of Clement C. Moore's A Visit from St. Nicholas are by Herman Melville's friend Felix Darley. Melville's Christmas Eve poem "Stockings" draws from one or another version of that delightful "Visit." Melville's other Santa poem, next as it should be in Weeds and Wildings, celebrates Christmas Day. "A Dutch Christmas Up the Hudson in the Time of Patroons," looks back to Moore's own source-text in The History of New York by Washington Irving, properly regarded as the genius of invented traditions. For historical background that illuminates Melville's "Dutch Christmas" poem like the Griswold Family Christmas Tree, get The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum. Historian Charles W. Jones made the essential point about the importance of Irving in his entertaining 1954 essay, available online via the St Nicholas Center:
Without Irving there would be no Santa Claus. The History contains no less than twenty-five allusions to him—many of them the most delightful flights of imagination in the volume. Here is the source of the legends about St. Nicholas in New Amsterdam—of the emigrant ship Goede Vrouw, like a Dutch matron as broad as she was long, with a figurehead of St. Nicholas at the prow. Here are the descriptions of festivities on St. Nicholas Day in the colony, and of the church dedicated to him. Here is the description of Santa Claus bringing gifts, parking his horse and wagon on the roof while he slides down the chimney.
--Charles W. Jones on the Knickerbocker Santa Claus
And Patrick Browne summarizes Jones and reconsiders the Irving connection in his thoughtful St. Nicholas Day post of a few years back, Santa Claus was Made by Washington Irving.

Here's a pertinent sample of Irving's style and substance there:
The good old Dutch festivals, those periodical demonstrations of an overflowing heart and a thankful spirit, which are falling into sad disuse among my fellow-citizens, were faithfully observed in the mansion of Governor Stuyvesant. New year was truly a day of open-handed liberality, of jocund revelry, and warm-hearted congratulation—when the bosom seemed to swell with genial goodfellowship; and the plenteous table was attended with an unceremonious freedom, and honest broad-mouthed merriment, unknown in these days of degeneracy and refinement. Paas and Pinxter were scrupulously observed throughout his dominions; nor was the day of St. Nicholas suffered to pass by without making presents, hanging the stocking in the chimney, and complying with all its other ceremonies.  --History of New York
Being well versed in his Irving, Melville knows and uses details from various works, most obviously the successive Christmas chapters that begin the second volume of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon. In 1876 these were combined in a separate volume titled Old Christmas, lavishly illustrated by Randolph Caldecott. So the hospitality of Melville's "Dutch Christmas" strongly resembles English hospitality as Irving imagined it at Bracebridge Hall. Melville fuses holiday trappings there, like indoor evergreens, roasted apples, turkey and ale, with situations and characters from elsewhere. The mistletoe "bush" that will lure "our Hans and Cousin Chris" after the dance is a notable enticement of Irving's chapter on Christmas Eve. As Irving explains in his footnote on "misletoe":
The misletoe is still hung up in farm houses and kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases. --Christmas Eve
Katrina, however, seems lifted from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," as Robert Ryan points out in the notes to his 1967 edition.

In the service of Melville's speaker (some prosperous Dutch farmer, if not the noble old Patroon himself) Santa rides out with mince-pie and pudding for all the prisoners in town (turns out there's only one), and for less fortunate neighbors or dependents. Not poor, we're told, and too proud to accept any gift condescendingly bestowed as charity. Melville's final line affirms the ideal of charity, or love, with a clear conscience. Possibly the poet has been reading in the Epistles of St. Paul:
"Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned. --1 Timothy 1:5
Considering the day (Christmas) and place (barn or stable), Melville comes close to homilizing on the Nativity with reflections on "the ox, ass, and Babe new-born." Melville we know read and commended Montalembert's Life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Did Melville's reading of French Catholics in translation include Prosper Guéranger on The Liturgical Year? Guéranger's paraphrase of Rabanus Maurus similarly links Christmas and conscience, alongside the appropriate references to ox, ass, and Babe in that order:
the pious Rabanus Maurus—who, in a Homily on the Nativity of our Lord, encourages sinners to come and take their place, side by side with the just, in the stable of Bethlehem, where even the ox and the ass recognise their Master in the Babe who lies there.

"I beseech you, dearly beloved Brethren, that you receive with fervent hearts the words our Lord speaks to you, through me, on this most sweet Feast, on which even infidels and sinners are touched with compunction; on which the wicked man is moved to mercy, the contrite heart hopes for pardon, the exile despairs not of returning to his country, and the sick man longs for his cure; on which is born the Lamb who taketh away the sins of the world, that is, Christ, our Saviour. On such a Birth Day, he that has a good conscience, rejoices more than usual; and he whose conscience is guilty, fears with a more useful fear...." --The Liturgical Year: Christmas
The most distinctively Melvillean touch in "Dutch Christmas" might be the speaker's concern for the well-being of other animals (excepting I guess the poor turkey) as his fellow creatures. Horses get extra oats, cows their favorite hay, birds the best crumbs. When Herman Melville lived at Arrowhead, he liked to watch his cow at breakfast, eating her pumpkins:
"for it's a pleasant sight to see a cow move her jaws—she does it so mildly & with such a sanctity."  --Some Personal Letters of Herman Melville
For the farmer-speaker of Melville's "Dutch Christmas," the fittingest place to go on Christmas morning is the barn, to visit the cows and take in "their sweet breath."

A Dutch Christmas Up the Hudson in the Time of Patroons

Over the ruddy hearth, lo, the green bough!
In house of the sickle and home of the plough,
Arbored sit and toast apples now!
Hi, there in barn! have done with the flail.
Worry not the wheat, nor winnow in the gale:
'Tis Christmas and holiday, turkey too and ale!
Creeping round the wainscot of old oak red,
The ground-pine, see — smell the sweet balsam shed!
Leave off, Katrina, to tarry there and scan:
The cream will take its time, girl, to rise in the pan.
Meanwhile here’s a knocking, and the caller it is Van
Tuenis Van der Blumacher, your merry Christmas man.
Leafless the grove now where birds billed the kiss:
To-night when the fidler wipes his forehead, I wis,
And panting from the dance come our Hans and Cousin Chris,
Yon bush in the window will never be amiss!
But oats have ye heaped, men, for horses in stall?
And for each heifer young and the old mother-cow
Have ye raked down the hay from the aftermath-mow?
The Christmas let come to the creatures one and all!
Though the pedlar, peering in, doubtless deemed it but folly,
The yoke-cattle’s horns did I twine with green holly.
Good to breathe their sweet breath this blest Christmas morn,
Mindful of the ox, ass, and Babe new-born.
The snow drifts and drifts, and the frost it benumbs:
Elsie, pet, scatter to the snow-birds your crumbs.
Sleigh-bells a’ jingle! ’Tis Santa Claus: hail!
Villageward he goes thro’ the spooming of the snows;
Yea, hurrying to round his many errands to a close,
A mince-pie he’s taking to the one man in jail. —
What! drove right out between the gate-posts here?
Well, well, little Sharp-Eyes, blurred panes we must clear!
Our Santa Claus a clever way has and a free:
Gifts from him some will take who would never take from me.
For poor hereabouts there are none: — none so poor
But that pudding for an alms they would spurn from the door.
All the same to all in the world’s wide ways—
Happy harvest of the conscience on many Christmas Days.  --Herman Melville
Melville put his two Santa Claus poems in the collection of poetry and prose titled "Weeds and Wildings." The great Houghton Library, Harvard University has the manuscript of Weeds and Wildings in their Herman Melville papers. In a wonderful present to Melville readers the world over, manuscript pages with Santa Claus poems in late stages of drafting are digitized and available online:
The forthcoming Northwestern-Newberry Edition of Melville's uncompleted writings doubtless will provide the best-edited texts of these poems ever. Meanwhile, available printed versions of Melville's Santa Claus poems in posthumously published editions of Weeds and Wildings include:
Handy e-texts:
Happy Christmas to all, and don't forget: What happens under the mistletoe stays under the mistletoe.

1 comment:

  1. The author of "Jingle Bells" James Lord Pierpont lived in the City of Troy (south of the Village and Town of Lansingburgh) in the mid-to-late 1840s. Pierpont and Melville both would have likely heard a fair amount of sleigh bells a' jingle up the Hudson.