Ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh wee,
Henry, you ain't movin' me;
You better feel that boogie beat,
And get the lead out of your feet.
--Zola Taylor and The Platters; also Etta James
Herman Melville gave his next book after Moby-Dick the richly suggestive alternative title, "The Ambiguities." True Melville fans must delight in uncertainty and mystery, and find pleasure in endlessly debating insoluble problems of belief and doubt. Fortunately for us, lots of things in life and literature are unknowable. Who wrote "The Night Before Christmas" is not one of them, however."The Night Before Christmas" will ever be a Shakespeare-Bacon sort of affair. -- Commodore Robert Gracey Denig (1851-1924), as quoted or paraphrased by his wife Jeannie Livingston Hubbard Denig.
Colleagues and friends knew Clement C. Moore as an amiable seminary professor and, in the words of Philip Hone, a multi-talented "scholar, musician, florist, bard." Moore definitely wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas," aka "The Night Before Christmas.” Henry Livingston, Jr. of Poughkeepsie by all accounts was a hardy patriot, genial family man, respectable farmer and surveyor, capable painter, and in his way, a clever wordsmith. In short, a model American citizen...although in our time, Livingston's pig-headed insistence that "No" means "Yes" in affairs of the heart could get him in big trouble on, say, a visit to Vassar College.
The dame with whom Phoebus sups nightly below:
And what the girls mean when they cry out no, no. --Apollo Rebus
With the word ladies use, tho their bosoms cry Yes
When the man of their choice for their hands fondly press. --Monarchs Rebus
The word ladies use tho their bosoms cry yes,
When the lads, saucy fellows! their suits fondly press: --Alcmena Rebus
The flow'r whose tints in your cheeks sweetly glow
And the word maidens mean when they faintly cry no! --Sages Rebus
What the pretty girls cry tho their meaning is yesBut Livingston could never have penned "The Night Before Christmas." The length of the Christmas poem, the narrative mode and father-with-children perspective and content, the strong element of fantasy, the penchant for similes with the word like, and skillful use of epic simile were all beyond Livingston's range of interest and ability as demonstrated in his extant poetry. Here's why it's Moore, no contest.
When swains at their feet ask the boon of a kiss. --War Rebus
To start with, Moore claimed "A Visit from St. Nicholas" and Livingston didn't. As Moore stated in his published 1844 letter to Charles King, editor of the New York American, he originally wrote the Christmas poem "not for publication, but to amuse my children."
|Clement C. Moore on the authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas"|
New York American, March 1, 1844
"We have been given to understand that the author of them [lines on St. Nicholas] belongs by birth and residence to the city of New York, and that he is a gentleman of more merit as a scholar and a writer than many of more noisy pretensions." --quoted in Troy's One Hundred Years.
Later Holley revealed in the Ontario Repository and Freeman [Canandaigua, New York] that he had known of Moore's authorship within a few months (not years) of the poem's first anonymous publication in the Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1823:
The following lines appeared in print for the first time—though very often copied since—in the Troy Sentinel of December 23, 1823, which paper we then conducted. They were introduced, on that occasion, with the following remarks; which, as they continue to be a true expression of our opinion of the charming simplicity and cordiality of the lines, as well as of our unchanged feelings toward the little people to whom they are addressed, we repeat them, only observing that although when we first published them, we did not know who wrote them, yet, not many months afterwards we learnt that they came from the pen of a most accomplished scholar and and estimable man, a professor in one of our colleges....--Ontario Repository and Freeman, December 28, 1836; reprinted in the Auburn Journal and Advertiser on Wednesday, January 4, 1837.On February 20, 1824, the Troy Sentinel also published, anonymously, an untitled poem by Moore that eventually would appear with corrections and revisions in Moore's 1844 Poems, under the title Lines Written after a Snow-Storm. Moore's "Snow-Storm" never went viral like "Visit," but the lovely lines found admiring readers, as shown when the Providence, Rhode Island American reprinted them "From the Troy Sentinel" on March 2, 1824. Published only two months after "Visit," Moore's snow poem is explicitly addressed to the speaker's children. It seems likely that the two poems were composed around the same time. Significant verbal parallels with "Visit" include the shared beds/heads rhyme, the simile with the trigram "as the snow," and the words dance, vision, and winter's. As in the case of "Visit," the first printing of Moore's "Snow-Storm" poem was unauthorized and contained errors that would be corrected in the later book version. For example, "ivy bowers" in the original 1824 printing was corrected to "icy bowers" in the 1844 book version. The Providence American reprinted "ivy bowers" from the Troy Sentinel. Evidently the Rhode Island editor did not perceive the error, or did not think it worth correcting.
When requested by the publisher of The New-York Book of Poetry, Moore submitted "Visit" and three additional poems for inclusion in the 1837 anthology.
The whole point of the anthology was to credit native New Yorkers for their worthy contributions to American literature, many of which (like Moore's "Visit") had been published anonymously in newspapers and magazines. From 1837 on, Moore claimed "Visit" as his work, openly and repeatedly. Livingston did not claim it, or even acknowledge its existence, ever. After his death in 1828, none of Henry Livingston's numerous children ever made any public claim their father wrote "Visit."
Moore’s authorship of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was acknowledged frequently by the best informed editors and literary critics of Moore's time including Charles King, William Cullen Bryant, Charles Fenno Hoffman, W. A. Jones, Evert A. Duyckinck, and Edmund Clarence Stedman. Physical evidence of Moore's claim to authorship has survived in the form of numerous inscribed copies of Moore's 1844 Poems with "A Visit from St. Nicholas" printed on pages 124-127.
The printed broadside with corrections in Moore's hand supplies additional physical evidence of Moore's authorship, materially linking Moore directly to the poem that only he published under his name.
|N. Tuttle. Account of a visit from St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus. |
Museum of the City of New York. 54.331.17
Four manuscripts penned by Moore, a biblical scholar, philanthropist and father of nine, survive: in The Strong Museum, The Huntington Library, The New-York Historical Society, and one in private hands. --Seth KallerEach of these surviving copies serves to corroborate the fact of Moore's claim to authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Moore was claiming the poem every time he wrote it out for admirers.
For all that, the circumstances of anonymous publication and rapid, widespread circulation in newspapers practically guaranteed an authorship controversy somewhere down the road. Quite understandably, some Livingston descendants came to believe the most accomplished poet of their own family wrote "The Night Before Christmas." But the family legend was never supportable or sustainable by facts. Early on, key claims by family members for Major Livingston's authorship depended on evidence that was non-existent and therefore could never be produced: of a lost or destroyed manuscript (non-existent); of prior publication (before 1823) in a Poughkeepsie newspaper (non-existent); of a simple mistake in attribution, caused or compounded by Clement C. Moore's apparent failure to claim authorship (false supposition). Furthermore, the first deceased artist to receive credit for Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was not Henry Livingston, Jr., anyhow, but somebody named Joseph Wood. When notified of the false claim for Wood in the Washington National Intelligencer, Clement C. Moore dutifully, promptly, and very publicly asserted his own claim to the poem as his own "literary property, however small the intrinsic value of that property may be." Moore's friend Charles King printed Moore's letter of protest in the New York American, and demanded a formal correction from the National Intelligencer.
In reply (March 6, 1844), the National Intelligencer editor observed that his paper had already issued a satisfactory correction, in a reader's letter published on December 28, 1843:
|Washington Daily National Intelligencer - December 28, 1843|
Messrs. EDITORS: I perceive in your paper of the 25th instant that an extract from the beautiful little poem entitled "A Visit from St Nicholas" is given to the pen of Jos. Wood. This is a mistake. It is well known to be the production of CLEMENT C. MOORE, of the city of New York, and is published as his in the volume of American Poems edited by John Keese.There was no argument, and no reason to debate Moore's "well known" authorship of "A Visit from. St. Nicholas." The Washington editor on March 6, 1844 assured Charles King that if the National Intelligencer had not already published the necessary correction back in December of the previous year, he would "have pleasure in complying with the request" to reprint Moore's letter to the New York American.
Very respectfully, &c.
Sad to say, Livingston descendants have been badly served by English professors, in particular the ex-Vassar president Henry Noble MacCracken, and authorship specialists Don Foster and MacDonald P. Jackson. When they want to, English profs with formal training in 18th and 19th century literature, poetry and poetics, prosody, source study, and/or children's literature can enlighten misguided claimants for Henry Livingston, Jr., and help all of us to a better understanding of what's going on in and with "The Night Before Christmas." To date, the most illuminating and praiseworthy studies with a specifically literary perspective are those by Ruth K. MacDonald in her 1983 article on Santa Claus in America; and Pat Pflieger, in her 2001 exhibition catalog essay on "Clement Clarke Moore and 'A Visit from St. Nicholas'" (available online at merrycoz.org). In 2002, Oak Knoll Press published the now indispensable Descriptive Bibliography of "The Night Before Christmas" by Nancy H. Marshall, retired Dean of University Libraries at The College of William and Mary. For the most part, however, literary scholars have been content to leave Clement C. Moore's "The Night Before Christmas" to the care of popular culture and the public domain. The most thorough and satisfying academic reading of "The Night Before Christmas" in print is by a historian, Stephen Nissenbaum, in The Battle for Christmas.
While we're waiting for an unbiased English professor to show up, one or more of the following excellent resources may prove useful:
- Janet Gray on "Popular Poetry" in Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, ed. Eric L. Haralson (Routledge, 1998), page 350.
- Nineteenth Century Publication Milestones - compiled by Nancy H. Marshall
- Joe Nickell upholds the Moore claim in his important two-part study for Manuscripts, the quarterly journal of The Manuscript Society. Nickell's published articles are "The Case of the Christmas Poem” in Manuscripts 54 (Fall 2002): 293-308; and “The Case of the Christmas Poem: Part 2” in Manuscripts 55 (Winter 2003): 5-15. Cited by Emily Kingery.
- Biography of Clement Clarke Moore by Samuel White Patterson, courtesy of Hathi Trust Digital Library
Deal-Breaker #1: 542 = too many total words for Henry to handle.
"A Visit from St. Nicholas" contains 542 words. That job would have seriously overworked Henry Livingston, Jr., who almost never wrote poems that long. Table 13.1 on pages 65-67 of Who Wrote The Night Before Christmas? by MacDonald P. Jackson gives counts of "Total Words" in poems attributed to Henry Livingston, Jr. Jackson's table already excludes eleven poems of less than 100 words. Only ten of fifty-four listed exceed 300 words. Only six poems attributed to Henry Livingston, Jr. exceed 400 words. Two of these longer poems, the 1803 and 1819 Carrier Addresses, are probably not by Henry Livingston, Jr. anyway. Isaac Mitchell of the Political Barometer most likely wrote the 1803 Carrier Address for the newspaper that he edited and co-founded. The 1819 Carrier Address in the Poughkeepsie Journal features words that Livingston never understood how to use properly, including two instances of the conventionally poetic word "ere." Drop the two Carrier Addresses of doubtful authorship and we're left with two bland fables, one talking gold coin ("American Eagle"), and the playful verse-letter to his brother Beekman, about as good as Livingston ever gets in verse.
The Crane & Fox, a fable = 460At 530 words, Adventures of an American Eagle, if it really is by Henry Livingston, Jr., seems the closest of Livingston's four longer pieces to "A Visit from St. Nicholas," both in terms of total words and date of publication (March 20, 1822). With its labored premise and clunky moral, "American Eagle" is no steal of a deal. You wouldn't bother toting it to Antiques Roadshow.
The Vine & Oak, a fable = 428
Letter to my brother Beekman = 408
American Eagle = 530
At most, the average length of the 54 poems evaluated by Jackson after excluding very short poems of less than 100 words is 228 words (12,303/54). Moore's average, even without adding in "Charles Elphinstone," is 20,556/32 = 642 words. Adding "Sand" back in plus the manuscript poems would bring up the average to 38,714/47 = 824 words.
Deal-Breaker # 2: Narrative poetry is not Henry's thing.
Length alone practically disqualifies Livingston, before we read one word of his poetry. When we do get around to reading actual poems by Henry Livingston, Jr. (available online, thanks to Mary S. Van Deusen and her enormously valuable Henry Livingston site), we may be surprised to learn, after 100 years of authorship hoopla, that he hardly ever writes narrative fiction in verse (the story-telling mode of "A Night Before Christmas"), and never narrates for children except in morally instructive fables. In narrative, something happens. The Christmas poem, as its original title promises, narrates the visit of St. Nicholas. The story has an identifiable speaker, the husband of "Mamma" and father of sweetly slumbering children. This confessedly paternal speaker tells a story that unfolds over time. The action of "Visit" has a beginning, middle, and end. Beginning: everyone's in bed. Middle: tomfoolery on the lawn, followed by a magical home invasion. End: they all got away. The core domestic narrative is embellished with fantastical and comical details about the appearance of Santa and his reindeer, and some choice descriptive elements drawn from nature--moon and snow, leaves and wind.
Joe Nickell calls the Christmas poem "a magical children's ballad" The "ballad" classification seems appealing but also arguable, too, considering how sophisticated the language and poetical devices are in places. Ballads typically employ simpler language and more frequent use of repetition than we find in "Visit." Nonetheless, in Part II of "The Case of the Christmas Poem" (pages 9-10), Dr. Nickell makes essentially the same point I am urging here, that Livingston nowhere approximates either the narrative form or magical content of "A Visit from St. Nicholas."
Nineteenth-century critics had no difficulty placing "A Visit from St. Nicholas" in the genre of nursery rhyme. "Visit" features the anapestic meter and narrative mode of discourse typically found in poems for children. Also on display in "Visit" is a lively blend of fantasy with the narration of ordinary domestic routines. All of these qualities coalesce in the new wave of British "toy books," illustrated books for children that were published in London during the first decade of the 19th century and available for sale no later than 1813 in American book shops. The most popular and influential of these early children's books were The Butterfly's Ball, and the Grasshopper's Feast by William Roscoe (2nd ed. London, 1808); and The Peacock at Home (London, 1807). At the close of the dinner party for birds in the Peacock story, both the action and words resemble the end of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." In the Christmas poem, Santa shouts his parting benediction ("Happy Christmas" etc.) and "away they all flew." The 1807 story does not tell us how, exactly; but the Peacock's house-guests left in the same fashion:
So they chirp'd, in full chorus, a friendly adieu;
And, with hearts quite as light as the plumage that grew
On their merry-thought bosoms, away they all flew….. --The Peacock at Home
Prospective gifts of "some books" (on New Year's Day, probably) and "toys" are mentioned in Clement C. Moore's verse letter to his daughter Charity Elizabeth (1816-1830), titled From Saint Nicholas. Blessed with a rich and loving father, little Charity had her own "nursy" and would have been overjoyed to get such books as these English imports in her stocking, if she or her sister Margaret (1815-1845) did not already have them. That unfairly maligned letter FROM SAINT NICHOLAS, by the way, testifies to, besides paternal love, Moore's facility with anapestic meter and magic in a narrative clearly written to amuse and edify one of his own children.
To see how Major Livingston handles narrative, we need to visit Mary S. Van Deusen's page with All Henry Livingston Poetry. The very first piece there, Easter, does offer a kind of narrative, the familiar Christian narrative of redemption. This 1784 poem is developed in large-scale archetypes, with no individualizing details, and is delivered remotely in the third person. Similar poems with similarly religious themes and relatively distant, impersonal narration are Livingston's versified translations from specific biblical texts in
An Invitation to the Country are conventionally pastoral. The poem evinces Livingston's fondness for allegorical personification (Avarice, Ambition), and a weakness for preaching that he shares with Clement C. Moore. The action is static, presenting situations and types, but no real story. Other poems that exhibit Livingston's distinctive blend of pastoral themes and personified abstractions are
- Invitation to Remove to a Frontier Settlement
- Gentleman Leaving Pakepsy
- Careless Philosopher's Soliloquy
Other poems attributed to Livingston may be classified as amorous verse. Several (for example "To Spadille" and "The Fly") have witty lines by a lover to or about his mistress, somewhat after the manner of the seventeenth-century Cavalier poets. Poems in the humorous vein of "The Acknowledgement" feature a more polished and elegant style, more typical of eighteenth-century verses by, for example, Dryden and Pope.
The Citizen Poets of Boston, ed. Paul Lewis, page 178). These word puzzles are characteristic devices for Livingston, whose preferred mode involves some formally controlled display of wit.
Besides translations from biblical texts, narrative verse by Livingston is mostly confined to a particular and distinctive literary genre, the fable (defined at Literary Devices as "a concise and brief story intended to provide a moral lesson at the end"). In fables, animals or other non-human characters behave like humans. Livingston carefully copied several verse fables into the manuscript book of his grown daughter Jane. Along with "Crane & Fox" Jane's manuscript book contains Livingston's grim Fable of the Bat and the cautionary tale of Midas. (Livingston's neat script and closing flourishes there make one think he would have been glad to write out "A Visit from St. Nicholas," too, had he really written it.) The Crane & Fox, dated 1827 in manuscript, retells old Aesop's story of The Fox and The Stork. All the fables attributed to Livingston are in iambic tetrameter. A few bits of dialogue and added descriptive details make "Crane & Fox" more engaging than most of Livingston's fables. Other pieces by Livingston in the genre of fable are The vine & oak, published in the New-York Magazine for February 1791, and (maybe) Adventures of an American Eagle, published over the signature of "R" on March 20, 1822 in the Poughkeepsie Journal.
In all of Livingston's fables the closing moral governs the action. All but one are told objectively, in the third person. Only "American Eagle" is narrated in the first person, reporting a series of mercantile exchanges from the point of view of a well-traveled coin made of gold. The meter is always iambic tetrameter, more or less. By contrast, Clement C. Moore's The Pig and the Rooster offers a fun exercise in anapestic tetrameter, the meter of "The Night Before Christmas" and the usual meter of nursery-rhymes. Despite energetic hating by advocates for Livingston's authorship of "The Night Before Christmas," this one animal fable by Moore is longer and appreciably lighter in tone and style than Livingston's comparatively heavy-handed productions. Moore's moral in "The Pig and the Rooster" boils down to something like, "to each his own," which sounds about as lighthearted as anyone could want or expect in an animal fable. Stretching out in 783 words, Moore takes more care to individualize his animal characters through dialogue and descriptive details. Plus, unlike any of Livingston's much shorter animal fables, "The Pig and the Rooster" shares the distinctive vocabulary of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Thirteen instances from my list of eight great favorite expressions of Clement C. Moore occur in "The Pig and the Rooster." The Christmas poem has fifteen from the same list.
Outside of fables, the few examples of quasi-narrative verse by Henry Livingston, Jr. occur in the form of letters. Frequently cited for supposed parallels to "The Night Before Christmas" are Livingston's anapestic Letter to my brother Beekman and Translation of a letter from a tenant of Mrs. Van Kleeck--as also discussed by Joe Nickell in Part II of "The Case of the Christmas Poem." Dr. Nickell does not cite the likely model for Livingston's verse letters, The New Bath Guide by Christopher Anstey. For many decades, anapestic satire in the manner of Anstey was all the rage. In Anstey and Anapestic Satire in the Late Eighteenth Century, Martin S. Day provides helpful literary and historical background for understanding this important influence on Henry Livingston's experiments with epistolary verse. Apart from the fun of it, reading Anstey along with some of his many imitators and successors confronts you with the ordinariness of words and rhymes that verse letters by Henry Livingston, Jr. share with "The Night Before Christmas."
Yes, I'm talking about clatter and matter; and belly and jelly; and even elf and self.
The annually recycled claim for Livingston leans hard on the casual impression of uncanny correspondences between jingling anapests and select rhymes in a few pieces by Major Livingston and the meter and rhymes of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." As the example of Anstey demonstrates, however, what Livingston's work shares with "Visit" is a common poetical heritage.
For in TABITHA's chamber I heard such a clatter,
I could not conceive what the deuce was the matter.... --The New Bath Guide
The company made a most brilliant appearance,
And ate Bread and Butter with great perseverance. --The New Bath Guide
According to Day, the best known of Anstey's epistles by "Simkin" were Letter 11, satirizing "a fashionable ball" and Letter 13, "celebrating an uproarious public breakfast given by Lord Ragamuffin" with a parody of 'Alexander's Feast' by Dryden.
One of Anstey's busiest disciples in the genre of satirical epistle was John Williams. Writing as "Anthony Pasquin," Williams wrote The Children of Thespis; The New Brighton Guide; and A Postscript to the New Bath Guide. As shown above, The Children of Thespis rhymes "elf" with "himself." And clatter with matter. Williams's Postscript rhymes "jelly" with "belly":
The meter and rhymes that Livingston family members associated exclusively with Henry Livingston, Jr. in fact were thoroughly conventional by the time he used them in the 1780's and 1790's. Twelve of the rhymes in "The Night Before Christmas" occur in one poem, A Burlesque Translation of Homer by Thomas Bridges.
Also indebted to Anstey, the aforementioned Peacock at Home and other new books that modeled the use of anapestic tetrameter in fun verses for children. Peacock was described in The British Critic as
"a specimen of playful wit conducted by genius, judgment, and taste, such as has not been seen since the publication of that, which in some points it resembles, the Bath Guide."Extracts from this British review of The Butterfly's Ball and Peacock at Home appeared in the New York Commercial Advertiser on March 12, 1808, after both works had been reprinted by David Longworth in the first number of The Substitute.
|New York Oracle and Daily Advertiser - March 5, 1808|
In good eighteenth-century fashion, Henry Livingston, Jr. gravitates to satire and the cold comfort of material facts, away from overly sentimental displays of emotion. The satirical tone of Major Livingston's prose is exemplified in published burlesques on Astronomical Intelligence and Antiquity an Universality of the English Language. In prose or verse, writings by Livingston exhibit the typical eighteenth-century bias for reason over feelings, head over heart. By contrast, "heart" turns out to be one of Moore's all-time favorite words--as MacDonald P. Jackson accurately reports in the back of Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"? in a footnote to chapter 16.
So Livingston avoids narrative except in fables, and rarely adopts the first-person point of view unless he's writing a letter. When Livingston does narrate events in the first person, he borrows the tone, meter, epistolary form, and a good deal diction from anapestic satire in the manner of the inescapable Christopher Anstey. Livingston addresses his unpublished satirical letters to adults only, whereas Moore wrote and published lightly satirical narrative verse ("A Trip to Saratoga" and "The Pig and the Rooster") with his children in mind.
Deal-Breaker #3: Henry has no use or capacity for fantasy, here and now.
Another deal-breaker is the glaring absence of fantasy in the modest body of poetic work attributed to Henry Livingston, Jr. No extant poem by Livingston features anything like the intersection of the mundane and the marvelous in "A Visit from St. Nicholas." The mix of fantasy and reality is what makes "The Night Before Christmas" so charming. A regular Joe jumped out of bed and actually saw Santa Claus! In the flesh! Nothing magical or fantastical appears in Livingston's fables beyond conventions of the genre, like talking animals and trees. Anthropomorphized characters interact with each other in the service of a controlling moral lesson, as they always do in fables. And Livingston generally adds the word "fable" in his titles, as if to emphasize their unreality and unbelievability. Talking animals, plants, and 10-dollar gold coins never once invade Poughkeepsie or magically inhabit any familiar, real-world setting.
The "jolly old elf" of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" with his "miniature sleigh" and "eight tiny reindeer" is a kind of fairy. As Ruth K. MacDonald has explained, the enumeration of reindeer names imitates the naming of Queen Mab's fairy attendants in Nimphidia by Michael Drayton. The author of "Visit" must be steeped in fairy lore. Livingston knows one fairy, Oberon. Shakespeare's famous king of the fairies appeals to Livingston when he needs the letter "O" as the correct answer to a verbal riddle in one of his Rebus poems, and when he wants a handy figure for the freedom and happiness of childhood.
Master Timmy brisk and airyIn the poem to Timmy Dwight, nothing of fairyland graces the youngster's active life as portrayed by Livingston's speaker. Timmy (Tommy in the printed version) plays ball, flies kites, shoots marbles, plays hide-and-seek, and eats like a vulture. The kid's mundane fun and games are sympathetically rendered, but nothing very amazing happens. There's no magic to brighten Timmy's completely earthbound life. No fairies, either. Livingston presents Timmy's imagined playmates as real children, not imaginary friends.
Blythe as Oberon the fairy --Letter sent to Master Timmy Dwight
In some poems Livingston introduces gods, goddesses and other elements from classical mythology. However, such creatures as the fluttering Cupids in The Fly function as adornment of a highly artificial setting, one with no pretensions of realism. Livingston's earliest angels, those who guard his infant daughter in the 1775 poem On my little Catherine sleeping are by far his best creative inventions. At the age of 27 the soldier and new father still believed in them, and so do we. By contrast, the seraphs of An Invitation to the Country who bless the innocent rural pleasures commended by the speaker are cardboard cut-outs of angels, part of the fabricated set. Here Livingston's angels seem no more real than his personified abstractions of Avarice, Ambition, and Dissipation.
Even when dealing with real people and events, Livingston has a hard time keeping personified abstractions out of his writing. In the poem To my little niece Sally Livingston, the merry tune of Sally's favorite songbird (now dead and buried) is said to have charmed an imposing quintuplet of allegorical figures: Labour, Study, Dissipation, Grief, and Ambition.
Excluding very short pieces, Livingston's average word total still is less than half of the 542 total words in "The Night Before Christmas." Livingston saves the narrative mode for fables and satire. He rarely employs the first person in poetry outside of one or two verse letters, written in the reigning comedic style of Christopher Anstey. From the evidence of available poems on Mary S. Van Deusen's Henry Livingston website, Livingston's range of imagination extends only so far as required by the genre at hand. Livingston's animals, birds, flowers, angels, insects, Cupids, mythical nymphs and graces never spring to life. Rather, they decorate his generic exercises in religious hymns, Rebuses, various pastoral settings, Cavalier love poetry, elegy, epistolary satire, and fable, hanging there like Styrofoam ornaments on a fake Christmas tree.
What about Moore then? In the first place, Clement C. Moore relishes the narrative mode and loves to stretch out. The first offering in Moore's 1844 volume Poems is a long narrative poem by Moore titled "A Trip to Saratoga." In Part II of his superb article There Arose Such a Clatter (published in Common-Place in January 2001, and still accessible online) Stephen Nissenbaum helpfully reads "Saratoga" as light and family-friendly social satire. "Saratoga" exhibits Moore's considerable skill with narrative, while also sharing the father-with-children theme (never developed anywhere in Livingston's poetry) and much of the vocabulary of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." In "Visit" the nameless father (the only one awake on Christmas Eve) flies to the window for a closer look at some trouble out on the lawn. In "Saratoga" the widowed "Henry Mildmay" makes his children run to the open window and close it, to shut out the rapidly approaching thunderstorm:
A Visit from St. Nicholas:
Away to the window I flew like a flash,A Trip to Saratoga:
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
"Down with the windows, run, here comes the gust,The repeated word "flew" in the Christmas poem occurs twice in Moore's "Saratoga," both times in constructions with parallel syntax as well as diction:
Quick, quick, the wind has veer'd—See! what a flash!"
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 SaratogaMoore wrote more lines of narrative verse in one poem than Livingston wrote lines of poetry. In manuscript, Moore's looooong narrative poem Charles Elphinstone presents an ambitious cosmic allegory of temptation, sin, and redemption: 13,670 total words by Jackson's count, surpassing the count of 12,599 total words in all poems by Henry Livingston combined. The first word is "I" for the Poet, Moore as the Miltonic or Dantean Bard who will narrate the story. The Poet's opening invocation to his Muse acknowledges the awesome power of human imagination to shape "dreams" into something with "real semblance":
So up to the house top the coursers they flew --A Visit from St. Nicholas
And thou, my Guardian Angel, deign to guideLivingston never aims so high. Reason rules for both men, but Livingston's eighteenth century world-view consistently prohibits outbreaks of fancy. Hence, the absence of magic in poems attributed to Henry Livingston, Jr. For Livingston, "fancy" exists to be curbed. Fancy should never wander, never get too real. But Moore's "wand'ring fancy" is the very attribute that allowed him to witness Santa and his reindeer in the snow that moonlit Christmas Eve. The main premise of "Elphinstone," spiritual warfare on earth between the invisible powers of heaven and hell, involves the kind of interaction we find in "The Night Before Christmas" between supposedly real and utterly fantastical elements. Certainly Moore, too, has his limits. He won't mess with Satan in Hell, so he invents a subordinate devil named Cosmocrator. Moore imagines Cosmocrator as "the arch-fiend" on earth to whom Satan sends hordes of "hell-train'd imps" for further orders in the battle for human souls. Cosmocrator is not the anti-Christ, but he might be the anti-Santa Claus.
My wand'ring fancy by thy heav'nly power;
And to its dreams such real semblance give
As Truth herself and Reason may approve.
"Charles Elphinstone" is not the only place where Moore reveals his apprehension of the fantastic in narrative verse. Two pieces in Moore's 1844 anthology Poems describe encounters between a perceptive human and a visitant from the world of fairyland, an elf or sprite. In To the Nymphs of Mount Harmony, an allegory of the Greek struggle for independence, a shepherd meets with a woodland elf who narrates a woeful tale of captivity and oppression by a fiend from hell. In "Nymphs" Moore employs the usual mythology of pastoral poetry more familiarly and adeptly than Livingston ever did. The "wond'ring ear" of Moore's Arcadian shepherd nicely harmonizes with the speaker's famously "wondering eyes" in "The Night Before Christmas." As pointed out in my first blog-review of Jackson's Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"?:
It 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. --Computer Error, please try againIn his Apology for Not Accepting an Invitation to a Ball Moore himself narrates the elaborate story of a visitation from fairyland by a diminutive guardian spirit, described as a kind of elf, "far below the human size." Fantastic as the whole story seems, Moore claims to believe it:
Of magic zones and rings you oft have heard,Whoever he is, the author of "The Night Before Christmas" needs to believe in magic. And fairies like Santa Claus. Moore does, and how! Including his manuscript Biography of the heart, the word magic occurs at least ten times in Moore's extant poetry. Forms of fairy/fairies occur seven times. The body of poems attributed to Henry Livingston, Jr. on Mary S. Van Deusen's amazing website contains only one instance of "magical," and that occurs in the 1803 Carrier Address which Livingston probably did not write. Of doubtful authorship, the 1803 News-boy's Address to the Patrons of the Political Barometer was more likely written by Isaac Mitchell, editor of the Political Barometer. All five of Livingston's five usages of fairy/fairies refer to Oberon. The most elaborate treatment of Oberon by Livingston takes up four lines of his War Rebus on Cornelia Tappen:
By faries on their favorites conferred.
Which pinch'd the wearers sore, or made them bleed,
Whene'er they went astray in thought or deed.
Nor think these stories false because they're old,
But true as this which soon I will unfold.
With the King of the fairies that sly jealous spriteAlthough described here with admirable precision and detail, Livingston's Oberon remains, nonetheless, a puzzle-piece who exists for the sake of the Rebus in which he is stuck. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, faeries memorably interact with human characters (Titania with Bottom; Puck with Lysander and Demetrius) on Oberon's orders, but Livingston's Oberon shows no sign of jumping out of his nutshell carriage to greet the poet or gambol with any human being.
Who sleeps all the day but who gambols all night
Green Caty-dids draw him—a nutshell contains him,
His kingdom a meadow & a dew-drop sustains him.
In American literature c. 1823, the preeminent verse fairy tale was Drake's The Culprit Fay, only composed in 1819 and not yet dissected and disparaged by Edgar Allan Poe in the Southern Literary Messenger.
Placing Clement C. Moore where he belongs, in the company of Drake and Halleck as a writer of "familiar verse," Brander Matthews favors Moore's "Visit" over anything of theirs, including "Culprit Fay":
In fact, nothing of Halleck's or Drake's, whether written by either singly or by both in collaboration, has revealed so vigorous a vitality as the charming and fanciful 'Visit from St. Nicholas' of another New Yorker, their contemporary, Clement C. Moore. --Brander Matthews
Deal-Breaker #4: Henry does not much like similes with like.
As shown in the earlier post on Eight Great Favorite Expressions of Clement C. Moore, the word like makes a truly great Moore-marker that occurs eight (count 'em) times in "A Visit from St. Nicholas":
One of the best Moore-markers in the world is the word "like" which Moore uses 132 times, at least, to Livingston's 15. Moore employs like most often to construct similes using "like," which Livingston does rarely, as the numbers demonstrate like ringing a bell. [MacDonald P.] Jackson would excuse his neglect of would and should and like in chapter 15 by pointing out that would is treated with high frequency words in chapter 16, should and like with medium-high frequency words in chapter 17. But would and should and like are too useful for differentiating Moore from Livingston to bury in a statistical table where numbers replace words and effectively mask their real identity, meaning, and literary value. In fact, these three words scream, "C.C.M. was here!"
Deal-Breaker # 5: Henry does not do epic or "Homeric" similes. Ever.
All by itself, Deal-Breaker Number Five excludes Henry Livingston, Jr. as a serious candidate and clinches the authorship of "The Night Before Christmas" for Clement C. Moore. Here's a textbook example of Homeric simile from "A Visit from St. Nicholas" aka "The Night Before Christmas."
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too. --Poems by Clement C. Moore
DEFINITION OF HOMERIC OR EPIC SIMILE
An extended simile elaborated in such detail or at such length as to eclipse temporarily the main action of a narrative work, forming a decorative digression. Usually it compares one complex action (rather than a simple quality or thing) with another: for example, the approach of an army with the onset of storm-clouds. Sometimes called a Homeric simile after its frequent use in Homer 's epic poems, it was also used by Virgil, Milton, and others in their literary epics. --The Oxford Dictionary of Literary TermsThe Homeric simile in "The Night Before Christmas" compares the sudden, upward flight of Santa's reindeer, depicted in high flown, classical language as "coursers," to the movement of dead leaves blown skyward by a violent wind, when there is no place for them to go but up. The complexity of this epic or Homeric simile perceptibly interrupts the excitement and fast flow of "The Night Before Christmas." We don't expect it in a nursery rhyme. To keep things fast and light, some newer editions of the Christmas poem actually delete the whole passage, according to "Neal" in a 2006 post on the Literal-Minded blog. (Neal also notes the frequent revision of the distinctive expression "settled our brains" to the more familiar "settled down.") Singular or plural, the word brain, as pointed out in the melvilliana post Settle your brains, is another strong Moore marker. For some a stumbling block, the epic simile likewise supplies "A Visit from St. Nicholas" with one of its most unusual and distinctive features. So, like it or not, the adept use of epic simile distinguishes the Christmas poem from ordinary doggerel.
No way around it, the Homeric or epic simile demands attention as a distinguishing feature of the original "Night Before Christmas." According to all the available evidence, Henry Livingston, Jr. could not have composed an epic simile to save his soul. As shown above, Livingston did not do narrative verse except in fables and a couple of satirical verse-letters, none of which contains any extended simile of any kind.
Clement C. Moore, on the other hand, regularly employed epic similes. The use of this classical device, a curiously precise and distinctive element of "The Night Before Christmas," is absolutely characteristic of poems by Clement C. Moore. For proof of Moore's facility here, check out two great examples of epic simile from poems collected in his 1844 volume, Poems. The first occurs in Moore's Verses Addressed to a Lady, originally published over the signature of "L." in The Port Folio for June 1, 1805:
Moore's epic simile in "To a Lady" compares the speaker's childhood tears, dried overnight by innocent and restorative sleep, to raindrops on a rose, dried by the morning sun. In "To a Lady" raindrops "fly" like the dry leaves "fly" in "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Raindrops and leaves both fly "before" some overmastering force of nature: the sunbeam, the hurricane.The trickling tears which flow'd at night,Dispell'd my little woes.
Oft hast thou stay'd, till morning light
So fly before the sunbeam's power
The remnants of the evening shower
Which wet the early rose. --Moore's To A Lady
In the second example, from "Mr. Chilton's Lectures," the structure of the epic simile closely parallels the As this.../So that... form of the same poetic device in "A Visit from St. Nicholas."
For, as a fluid vainly strives to saveGiven this early evidence of Moore's facility in the use of epic simile, his long narrative poem "A Trip to Saratoga" should be chock full of them--and so it is. Here are five, by no means all he wrote:
A heavier mass from sinking in its wave,
So, in the mind made up of trifles light,
All weighty truths, o'erwhelm'd sink out of sight! --Mr. Chilton's Lectures
1. The mental and emotional excitement generated by travel in a fast-moving carriage is compared to the "foam and bubbles" produced in a goblet by the rapid pouring of wine:
While rapid motion, as the carriage flies2. More compares lovely young women with a strong moral center to a weighted, self-balancing toy:
Stirs up new life and spirit in the soul,
Just as the mantling foam and bubbles rise
In generous wine that's dash'd into the bowl;— --A Trip to Saratoga - Part 4
They're like the plaything children call a Witch;3. Underneath cool exteriors, Latin aristocrats burn with angry passion, like volcanoes covered in snow and ice.
Made of a weight attach'd to somewhat light.
Howe'er you twist or twirl it, toss or twitch,
It has a saving power that brings it right. --A Trip to Saratoga - Part 4
Italian counts and Spanish dons, all cold,4. Varying the smouldering volcano simile, Moore likens the righteous anger of normally calm intellectual types (like himself, no doubt) to sparks produced by flint and steel. Flint in this figure represents the quiet scholars, steel the idiotic arguments that set them off.
Sedate and grave; but let them rouse with ire,
Like snow-clad mountains, they'll be found to hold
The elements that feed volcanic fire. --A Trip to Saratoga - Part 5
Some tranquil minds were made to shine by dint5. Again in "Saratoga," the traveling Mildmays are so happy to be homeward bound they almost want to delay the return trip--like children who would prolong their enjoyment of an appetizing treat by only looking at it.
Of fools' attacks, that waken'd gen'rous ire ;
As steel elicits from the stricken flint
The sudden brilliance of its secret fire. --A Trip to Saratoga - Part 5
With such delight our party's minds were fraught,In To the Sisters of Charity Moore compares souls of saintly nuns to migrating birds "that seek a better clime":
To think that homeward they were hurl'd again;
Such pleasure 'twas to dwell upon the thought,
They almost wish'd the motion to restrain.
Just as we see a child delay to taste
Some ripe and tempting fruit 'tis wont to prize;
Nor will it to the dainty pleasure haste;
But still puts off the feast, and fondly eyes. --A Trip to Saratoga - Part 6
When death draws near, they gladly hail his power.Another and more complicated bird figure appears in Charles Elphinstone. Here, in what strikes me now as the most exhilarating of his many extended similes, Moore imagines the gravely imperiled soul of George Cadwallader as a bird on the Niagara River, being relentlessly swept toward destruction.
And then, like birds that seek a better clime,
On swift untiring wing their spirits rise,
And gladly leave this turbid stream of time.
To take their homeward progress through the skies. --The Sisters of Charity
But, from the host of heaven a spirit came,
And snatch'd it from his grasp - and George was sav'd!
A bird, thus, floating on a rapid stream,
Whose violence forbids it to take wing,
Just as it rushes o'er the cataract's brow
To meet destruction in the roaring gulph,
Is caught and borne upon the viewless air,
And, circling, wings its joyous flight aloft.*
* This is said to happen with water fowl on the rapids of Niagara [Moore's note].Moore's last and best epic simile thus compares the surprising arrival of an angel from heaven to the experience of floating ducks when all of a sudden they find themselves up-borne by air instead of water. Though invisible, "viewless air" is not nothing. It looked like Cosmocrator was going to have poor George in Hell, for sure, but at the last possible moment Moore's angel takes him somewhere better.
--Charles Elphinstone (as transcribed by Mary S. Van Deusen and presented on Henry Livingston.com)
Herman Melville himself had to admit, in the Epilogue to Clarel, that even seemingly unreclaimable "stoics" might one day "be astounded into heaven."
Now a century old, the Moore vs. Livingston question seems very like the so-called Shakespeare Authorship Question, where the real experts well know that Will Shakespeare the actor and playwright from Stratford upon Avon wrote those great plays and poems attributed to him, not Francis Bacon or Edward De Vere. With due allowance for Shakespeare's undoubted collaboration(s) with other professional playwrights, knowing academics know for a certainty that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, but they generally don't like arguing with authorship nuts. Working scholars understandably regard authorship discussions, interminable and acrimonious, as a depressing waste of time. On the other hand, authorship debates often provide excellent opportunities for learning, as well as comic relief. From the traditional Stratford end of the SAQ, the Oxfraud website and Oxfraud Public Group on Facebook lovingly invite and make the most of opportunities for fun and enlightenment.
SHE SAID/HE SAID DEPT.According to his wife, Robert Gracey Denig foretold that
"The Night Before Christmas" will ever be a Shakespeare-Bacon sort of affair.Commodore Denig's prophecy would seem to represent the best hope Livingston advocates have left, for perpetuating the lie that Henry Livingston, Jr. wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Maybe the distinguished naval officer, engineer, and husband of Livingston descendant Jeannie Livingston Hubbard Denig was right, although possibly he overestimated the durability of once alluring arguments for Francis Bacon as the real author of Shakespeare's works. For a century now, it's been more of a Shakespeare-Oxford sort of affair. Two 1920 articles favored the false claim for Henry Livingston with unduly generous treatments:
- Winthrop P. Tryon, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. Christian Science Monitor, August 4, 1920; and
- Henry Litchfield West, "Who Wrote "'Twas The Night Before Christmas"? The Bookman, December 1920.
"The Night Before Christmas" will ever be a Shakespeare-Maybe the best alternative claimant for the next hundred years will be Christopher Marlowe. Or, if Sabrina Feldman has her way:
BaconShakespeare- OxfordShakespeare-__________ sort of affair.
"The Night Before Christmas" will ever be a Shakespeare-Sackville sort of affair.
Seasonal Help Wanted. Applications now being accepted.
But surely Major Livingston's time is past, like Edward De Vere's, and Bacon's before him. If the SCAQ (Santa Claus Authorship Question) must be always with us, then 21st century contrarians will need a new and better rival candidate for the authorship of "The Night Before Christmas." Jonathan Odell, Clement C. Moore's loyalist godfather, ought to be worth a good long look. Rev. Odell was the first Provincial Secretary of New Brunswick, and no mean poet.
Perhaps Odell’s most powerful satire was “The American times,” which once was attributed to Dr Myles Cooper and which appeared over the pseudonym Camillo Querno. Here the poet calls before him those he holds responsible for the crime of the revolution, namely the fallen angels, who, able temporarily to leave Pandemonium, take on human form and wreak havoc in earthly society. For this device Odell may have been indebted to John Milton. --Dictionary of Canadian BiographyThe New Brunswick Museum has a copy of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" in the handwriting of Jonathan Odell's daughter, Mary Odell. Problem there is, Mary also copied out other early poems by Clement C. Moore. Wait, could Mary be THE ONE? Move over, Henry! And don't you fret about the 1824 watermark. That can be explained away later.
Obviously I've been holed up all month trying to map out a case for Herman Melville. Can we add "A Visit from St. Nicholas" to the short list of Santa Claus poems by Herman Melville? Bad news: the hard fact of Melville's August 1, 1819 birthday makes him just four years old when "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was first published in Troy. Written at age 3? Far-fetched, I know, even for a brother of Gansevoort Melville. Come to think of it, the most generous and most truly Melvillean angle here would be, after all this fa-la-la, to ascribe the authorship of "The Night Before Christmas" to "S. B." You know, the "Spirit of all Beauty," since
the names of all fine authors are fictitious ones, far more so than that of Junius,—simply standing, as they do, for the mystical, ever-eluding Spirit of all Beauty, which ubiquitously possesses men of genius.--Hawthorne and His MossesEver-eluding? Did he just say, "ever-eluding"? Now that reminds me of something I read in...
Oh, never mind. How many shopping days do we have left?
- Computer error, please try again
- Response by MacDonald P. Jackson
- Recommended fixes
- Jackson on Norsworthy on The Night Before Christmas
- Cadillacs and ragged Fords
- Dunder-Donder, Blixem-Blixen, etc.
- Wisdom and Courage of Cornelia Griswold Goodrich
- Eight great favorite expressions of Clement C. Moore
- Joe Nickell cited by Emily A. Kingery