POETS Day! Clement Clarke Moore

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

“Not a mouse stirring.”
Hamlet Act I, Scene I

This is another one of those weekends where there’s really not much need for a POETS Day. Heresy! You might say, and I’d be tempted to agree with you, but even those that don’t celebrate Christmas are the beneficiaries of an act of Congress marking the 25th of December as a federal holiday and that designation pretty well spills over to the days before and after in practice if not in fact. Even if you are at work, whoever you are supposed to be calling on or transferring funds to is probably tilting at last minute shopping or stuck in an airport because the U.S. is now apparently Hoth so it’s a wasted week. If you don’t work retail, you’ve likely already been given a pass to leave work early on Friday if you were expected to show up at all. There’s no need to adhere to the dictate Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday, but that doesn’t mean there’s no need for a bit of poetry. On the contrary, this is an excellent time to get all doe-eyed and the kind of overplayed optimistic cheerful that makes grown men cringe and wish they’d never heard the word ebullient and say, “But it’s always time for poetry!” I think that’s true. Hope you do too.

To my knowledge, there is no tradition recommending anapests when writing poetic religious narratives, but that’s where I keep coming across them. To my knowledge, they are rarely used in devotionals or similarly themed works (I say rarely because I’m holding out that just because I can’t think of a single one, there are more things in heaven and earth than I come across reading the slice of English language poetry that I prefer.) The anapest, a metric foot consisting of two unstressed followed by one stressed syllable, pops up in a lot of long form works. The Illiad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid were all written primarily using another three-syllable foot known as a dactyl, made up of a stressed followed by two unstressed syllables. The distance between stresses in either foot gives prominence the stress wouldn’t have in an iamb or trochee (two syllable feet, unstressed/stressed and stressed/unstressed respectively) and can contribute to an epic sensibility. Translations into English keep as close to the original possible. “I sing of arms and the man” is an example of keeping with the dactylic spirit if not the precise form. Stresses fall on “arms” and “man” but to make sense a throw away “I” is included. In addition to throw away syllables often anapest might be substituted for a dactyl in translation so you can know in your heart of hearts that Juvenal’s Satires are considered to be written in dactyls but can come across an essay or analysis that says they are anapestic without it ruining your world view.

To complicate things, Robert Frost spoke of “loose iambics” by which he meant English’s habit of dropping in extra unstressed syllables to fit the conversational rhythms of the language, so depending on the placement of the extra syllable in an iambic composition, a given iamb is in fact an anapest or a dactyl. Trust that despite all the contrariness there is a rhyme and rhythm to the whole thing.

I’m assuming that familiarity with three-syllable epic poetry passed down from classical languages fixed in the minds of English poets that which is appropriate to exalted subject matter. As I mentioned above, I’ve come across it in poetic versions of biblical narratives. Here’s a few lines from Robert Browning’s “Saul Part V” where not-yet-King David prepares to play.  It’s mostly anapests, but dactyls are there too.

Then I tuned my harp,—took off the lillies we twine round its chords
Lest they snap ‘neath the stress of the noon-tide—those sunbeams like swords!
And I first played the tune all our sheep know, as, one after one,
So docile they come to the pen-door till folding be done.

Lord Byron’s “Destruction of Sennacherib” is written almost exclusively in anapestic tetrameter. The meter sweeps the reader up in the immediacy of the moment. It contributes to a sense of motion and intensity.

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Not all poems about the doings of religious figures aim to elicit the same emotion. Where Browning sought awe in the face of majesty and Byron awe in the face of godly power, this week’s poet, Clement Clarke Moore, used the same form utilized in “Destruction of Sennacherib” to elicit joyful wonder.

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

How Saint Nicholas spends his evening may not match in solemnity a performance by the author of the psalms or in consequence the siege of Jerusalem, but it certainly grabbed an audience. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” or “The Night Before Christmas” as it’s currently known, may be the most reprinted poem in the English language. Washington Irving started things off in A History of New York in which “good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children,” Moore took the baton and infused the saintly character with magnetism and undeniable youth appeal, and Coca-Cola’s ad department at anchor spread the image worldwide. Building our current Christmas mythology was a group effort, but it was Moore who fleshed it out to where we can call reindeer by name.

Moore was a professor of Oriental and Classical languages at New York’s General Theological Seminary and a longtime board member of Columbia College (later University.) His Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language became a standard text. He made quite a few dollars subdividing and developing his inherited estate located just outside of New York City. Initially, he opposed expansion of the city and wanted his land to remain pastures, but the writing was on the wall so eventually he relented to the paving over of his not tiny holding. In fact it was so not tiny that his estate called Chelsea, while not making up the whole of the new district, was such that the area still bears the name. Poetry was a side thing for him. Poetry for children even more so.

It is not known how “A Visit from St. Nicholas” came to be published in The Troy Sentinel in December of 1823. There are stories of acquaintances of Moore’s having acquaintances of their own of varying degrees of separation with ties to Troy, but none of these accounts has been seized on as definitive by those who seize on such things. The poem was published anonymously and not until 1837 was Moore publicly outed as the author though several attested that he privately told them it was his work. He said he wrote it for his two daughters, basing St. Nick on a local Dutch handyman. Not until 1844 did he publish it under his own name as an entry in his volume of collection poems lavishly titled Poems.

The timeline is important because years later a woman says she recalled that a relative told her that her father Henry Livingston wrote the poem and read it to her in 1808. She went public with this story sixty years after the remembered reading was supposed to have happened and both Moore, the acknowledged author, and Livingston, who never made claim to the poem, were both quite dead.

The Livingston claim was based solely on anecdotal evidence which was considered and discarded as timelines failed to match up with recorded events. The family maintains to this day that the poem is the fruit of their family tree despite any supporting proof for their claim and considerable proof pointing to Moore as the author. The “controversy” will continue to get press because this time of year it makes good click bait but, baring new information, the battle, if ever it really was one, seems won by the Moore camp.

My favorite gambit deployed by the Livingston claimants is that an examination of Moore’s other confirmed writings shows no stylistic semblance to “Visit” (that’s cool Moore vs. Livingston jargon for “A Visit from St. Nicolas” I picked up by reading way too much written by people enthralled by l’affair Moore vs. Livingston.) That’s true if you compare the poem to Moore’s academic and serious-minded poetry as the Livingston folks reportedly did. It kind of falls apart when you allow poems he wrote for children to be included in the comparison. You don’t have to take my word for it.

Consider this week’s featured poem by Clement Clarke Moore, “The Pig and The Rooster,” keeping in mind that as far as I know no one is disputing he wrote this one and per collector and historical authenticator Seth Kaller “The Museum of the City of New York holdings include several other examples of Moore’s anapestic poetry, much of it written for, or at the request of, his children.” Is it possible that the author of this poem was capable, pace the pro-Livingston claims, of writing a poem for kids in the style of “Visit?” You be the judge.


“The Pig and The Rooster”

Clement Clarke Moore (1779 – 1863)

On a warm sunny day, in the midst of July,
A lazy young pig lay stretched out in his sty,
Like some of his betters, most solemnly thinking
That the best things on earth are good eating and drinking.
At length, to get rid of the gnats and the flies,
He resolv’d, from his sweet meditations to rise;
And, to keep his skin pleasant, and pliant, and cool,
He plung’d him, forthwith, in the next muddy pool.
When, at last, he thought fit to arouse from his bath,
A conceited young rooster came just in his path:
A precious smart prig, full of vanity drest,
Who thought, of all creatures, himself far the best.
“Hey day! little grunter, why where in the world
Are you going so perfum’d, pomatum’d and curl’d?
Such delicate odors my senses assail,
And I see such a sly looking twist to your tail,
That you, sure, are intent on some elegant sporting;
Hurra! I believe, on my life, you are courting;
And that figure which moves with such exquisite grace,
Combin’d with the charms of that soft-smiling face,
In one who’s so neat and adorn’d with such art,
Cannot fail to secure the most obdurate heart.
And much joy do I wish you, both you and your wife,
For the prospect you have of a nice pleasant life.”
“Well, said, Master Dunghill,” cried Pig in a rage,
“You’re, doubtless, the prettiest beau of the age,
With those sweet modest eyes staring out of your head,
And those lumps of raw flesh, all so bloody and red.
Mighty graceful you look with those beautiful legs,
Like a squash or a pumpkin on two wooden pegs.
And you’ve special good reason your own life to vaunt,
And the pleasures of others with insult to taunt;
Among cackling fools, always clucking or crowing,
And looking up this way and that way, so knowing,
And strutting and swelling, or stretching a wing,
To make you admired by each silly thing;
And so full of your own precious self, all the time,
That you think common courtesy almost a crime;
As if all the world was on the look out
To see a young rooster go scratching about.”
Hereupon, a debate, like a whirlwind, arose,
Which seem’d fast approaching to bitings and blows;
‘Mid squeaking and grunting, Pig’s arguments flowing;
And Chick venting fury ‘twixt screaming and crowing.
At length to decide the affair, ‘twas agreed
That to counsellor Owl they should straightway proceed;
While each, in his conscience, no motive could show,
But the laudable wish to exult o’er his foe.
Other birds, of all feather, their vigils were keeping,
While Owl, in his nook, was most learnedly sleeping:
For, like a true sage, he preferred the dark night,
When engaged in his work, to the sun’s blessed light.
Each stated his plea, and the owl was required
To say whose condition should most be desired.
It seemed to the judge a strange cause to be put on,
To tell which was better, a fop or a glutton;
Yet, like a good lawyer, he kept a calm face,
And proceeded, by rule, to examine the case;
With both his round eyes gave a deep-meaning wink,
And, extending one talon, he set him to think.
In fine, with a face much inclin’d for a  joke,
And a mock solemn accent, the counsellor spoke –
“’Twixt Rooster and Roaster, this cause to decide,
Would afford me, my friends, much professional pride.
Were each on the table serv’d up, and well dress’d,
I could easily tell which I fancied the best;’
But while both here before me, so lively I see,
This cause is, in truth, too important for me;
Without trouble, however, among human kind,
Many dealers in questions like this you may find,
Yet, one sober truth, ere we part, I would teach –
That the life you each lead is best fitted for each.
‘Tis the joy of a cockerel to strut and look big,
And to wallow in mire, is the bliss of a pig.
But, whose life is more pleasant, when viewed in itself,
Is a question had better be laid on the shelf,
Like many which puzzle deep reasoners’ brains,
And reward them with nothing but words for their pains.
So now, my good clients, I have been long awake,
And I pray you, in peace, your departure to take.
Let each one enjoy, with content, his own pleasure,
Nor attempt, by himself, other people to measure.”
Thus ended the strife, as does many a fight;
Each thought his foe wrong, and his own notions right.
Pig turn’d, with a grunt, to his mire anew,
And He-biddy, laughing, cried – Cock-a-doodle-doo.

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