Monday, March 6, 2017

Trigrams that count in "A Visit from St. Nicholas" and other poems by Clement C. Moore

Concentrating on trigrams avoids subjectivity in the citation of "verbal parallels." --MacDonald P. Jackson, Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"? p. 45
I'm sold on the potential value of n-grams in establishing authorship of disputed texts. When you count the trigrams that MacDonald P. Jackson missed in his monograph Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"?, the corrected numbers strongly support the claim for Clement C. Moore--as you would reasonably expect, given the overwhelming historical evidence of Moore's authorship. Freshly corroborated by the discovery of Clement C. Moore's published claim to authorship in the New York American on March 1, 1844.

Trigrams overlooked by MacDonald P. Jackson

("The poem's subject matter is so original that in fact few trigrams link it to either author.")
  1. "as the snow" --Lines Written after a Snow-Storm ("transient as the snow")
    matches "as the snow" in A Visit from St. Nicholas. Significantly, Moore's snow poem is exactly contemporary with his far more famous Santa Claus poem: both were published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel within the span of two months. "Visit" first appeared in the Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1823; and "Lines" on February 20, 1824.

  2.  "turn'd, with a" --The Pig and The Rooster
    matches "turned with a" in A Visit from St. Nicholas The parallel here is good and contextually rich. Each trigram occurs near the end of the poem. As the action winds down, Moore's pig "turn'd, with a" monosyllabic "grunt"; St. Nick similarly "turned with a jerk."

  3. "I, in my" --The Water Drinker matches "I in my" in A Visit from St. Nicholas.

  4. "the top of" --Irish Valentine, 2x
    Two occurrences in Moore's unpublished "Irish Valentine" match two occurrences in "A Visit from St. Nicholas." The first example constitutes a shared four-gram: the top of the corresponding with "the top of the" porch/hall in A Visit from St. Nicholas

    Moore's "Irish Valentine" also features the shared end-rhyme snow/below, not counted by MacDonald P. Jackson in his chapter on "Rhyme Links."

  5. "not a word" --Charles Elphinstone
    matches "not a word" in A Visit from St. Nicholas. This instance from Moore's ambitious blank verse narrative "Charles Elphinstone" ("She utter'd not a word; but such a flush") exhibits a larger parallel structure, since the pronoun + past-tense verb "utter'd" grammatically matches "he spoke" in "A Visit from St Nicholas." Hey, is that another four-gram? not a word + but.

  6. "to the skies" --To Miss Jeannette McEvers
    matches "to the sky" in A Visit from St. Nicholas

  7. Additional shared trigrams in Clement C. Moore's Charles Elphinstone, not counted by MacDonald P. Jackson:
    • "to the skies"
    •  "in a moment"
    • "the breast of" 2x
    • "of his eye"
    • "and then, in"
All told, so far: 13 (count 'em) trigrams that MacDonald P. Jackson missed. A more sophisticated methodology of authorship attribution should be able to map and assess strings or clusters of words that, like n-grams, can reveal distinctive patterns or habits of writing. The study of word adjacency networks looks most promising to me. I can't seem to manage the supreme confidence in function words that attribution experts keep urging, most recently in the analysis of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays. Still, with due attention to context and words that actually mean something, this network approach represents a significant improvement. Concerning the case at hand, here are three six especially telling examples from known poems by Moore that Jackson's flawed method of examining internal evidence did not catch or consider:
away they all flew --A Visit from St Nicholas
away they     flew --A Trip to Saratoga
But swift, away, away, the hours they flew  --A Trip to Saratoga
So up to the house top the coursers they flew  --A Visit from St. Nicholas
wondering eye should --A Visit from St Nicholas
inquiring   eye should --Biography of the heart

the               lustre of mid-day --A Visit from St Nicholas
The constant lustre of the day --Biography of the heart
With a purse full of shiners; and heart full of joy  --Irish Valentine
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.  --A Visit from St Nicholas
So fly before the sunbeam's power  --Moore's To A Lady
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly  --A Visit from St. Nicholas
And look! the examples from "To A Lady" and "Visit" both contribute to extended or Homeric similes. Henry Livingston, Jr. never attempts even one such simile in any of the poems definitely ascribed to him on Mary S. Van Deusen's fabulous website. With all due respect to the gifted American patriot, epic simile was not in Livingston's arsenal of poetic devices.
We don't need to bother with bigrams, necessarily. Still, I wonder now how Jackson could have ignored them. If we counted up those, too, I expect the results would nicely confirm what we already knew, that Clement C. Moore wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas."

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