A Contemporary Quandary
Will the Real Author Please Step Forward
Part 2 of 2
But as it relates to us, the issue is "A Visit From St. Nicholas." David D. Kirkpatrick, writing in the New York Times, contributed the following analysis.
The Literary Puzzle Involving a Certain Jolly Old Elf
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
December 17, 2000. AROUND this time every year, millions of Americans dust off their editions of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (a k a "The Night Before Christmas") the 19th-century doggerel by Clement Clarke Moore. This Christmas, however, those volumes may be subject to revision: a debate has broken out over whether Moore was actually the author.
The challenge comes from Don Foster, an English professor at Vassar who made his name by attributing a mediocre elegy to William Shakespeare and accurately pinning the anonymous novel "Primary Colors" on the journalist Joe Klein. In a new book, "Author Unknown" (Henry Holt & Company, 2000), Professor Foster argues that "A Visit From St. Nicholas" closely resembles the influences and handiwork of another gentleman poet, Henry Livingston, whose family has unsuccessfully staked the claim since the mid-19th century. Livingston himself died shortly after the poem's 1823 publication.
Some historians dispute Professor Foster's case. They say the strongest evidence is the testimony of Moore and his family and friends. Stephen Nissenbaum, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, says that Moore was the likely author because he belonged to a set of patrician Manhattanites who wanted to popularize the image of St. Nicholas and domestic celebrations of Christmas. "But nobody really knows for sure," he said.
Excerpts from the disputed poem and examples of both men's verse follow.
"A Visit From St. Nicholas" appeared anonymously in a Troy, N.Y., newspaper in 1823. Friends of Moore, a wealthy Manhattan scholar who owned what is now Chelsea, began naming him as its author, and he finally took credit for it in 1844. No original manuscript has surfaced, but late in life Moore wrote and signed at least four copies.
Professor Foster contends that it borrows heavily from certain bawdy 18th- century British poems, including its distinctive cadence, anapestic tentrameter (in which the accent falls every third syllable, and each line is 12 syllables long). For example, he believes the poet took the image of "coursers" that "prance" from a rhyme describing a hungover Apollo driving his chariot across the sky. Livingston often borrowed from such poems, but Moore did not.
Professor Foster adds that the poem bears Livingson's hallmarks, like the repeated use of "all" as an adverb. Livingston had also studied Lapland, home of reindeer, and frequently wrote of animals and other objects in flight.
'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;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And Mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap;
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter . . .
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
Supporters of Moore's authorship cite "The Pig and the Rooster," about a quarrel between a lazy pig and an arrogant rooster. It is Moore's only known anapestic work. Most of his poems are somber, but this one is playful, if moralistic. Its conclusion:
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 . . .
It seem'd to the judge a strange cause to be put on,
To tell which was better, a fop or a glutton . . .
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 . . .
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, . . .
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.
Each December, Livingston wrote a light poem for local newspaper carriers to distribute as they trolled for holiday tips. Like much of his oeuvre, these poems often were enlivened by a spirit of fun, used anapestic rhythm and borrowed, Professor Foster says, from the same ribald verses as the disputed poem. Here is the end of Livingston's carrier poem from 1802. The peroration echoes the Christmas poem's reindeer roll call and closing benediction.
All hail to the season so jovial and gay,
More grateful to newsboys than blossoms of May,
Than Summer's green gown, or Miss Autumn's brocade
Bespangled with gold and with diamonds o'erlaid . . .
For Summer and Autumn and fair-bosom'd Spring,
With their pinks and their peaches no holidays bring!
But now comes blithe Christmas, while just in his rear
Advances our saint — jolly, laughing, New Year . . .
But what, on this festive occasion, to say
Is a question which puzzles your poet today —
Since the storms which have ravaged old Europe are o'er,
And the light'nings and thund'rings of war are no more!. . .
Well — since from abroad no great tidings are brought,
Let us see what at home there is, worthy of note!
Why, here we find little to trouble our heads,
Except paper-battles 'twixt Demos and Feds —
Abusing and squabbling and wrangling and spite,
Though I, for my life, see not what they get by't . . .
But (to come to the point which I've long had in view)
My patrons, attend! — I've a few words for you!
You'll please to remember how, many months past,
While tempests roar'd loud and while shrill scream'd the blast . . .
With the news gather'd up from the wide world all o'er,
True as time, ev'ry week, I arriv'd at your door;
And now, as old custom ordains, I appear,
To present you, my Patrons, a HAPPY NEW- YEAR!
This year which we name EIGHTEEN HUNDRED and THREE,
Which brings you a song — and your carrier, a fee!
(At least I predict so — with deference to you —
As we all can predict what we *wish* to be true!) . . .
But 'tis time that I bid you goodbye, till next year,
By wishing you happiness, peace and good cheer:
To the ladies, the charms both of form and of face . . .
To the clergy, meek charity, unmix'd with pride —
And something to wake us on Sunday, beside!
To the farmer, fine crops! To the merchant, much trade! . . .
But to printers, the shiners, as oft as you please!
In short, to conclude my nonsensical song
To all, what they wish, if they wish nothing wrong.
Editors Note: In an ABC NEWS interview broadcast Sunday, December 24, 2000, Professor Foster also noted that the use of "Merry Christmas" was almost universal at the time the poem was first published. However, Livingston preferred the term "Happy Christmas", citing an example of Livingston’s correspondence.
Henry’s Family Lends A Hand
The family of Henry Livingston, Jr., (whose portrait appears left) has not been lax in its assertions that Henry was the author. An extensive analysis of family history is found at the web site:
The Quest To Prove Henry's Authorship,
At another web site, the history of Henry Livingston, Jr., is explored:
Major Henry Livingston, Jr.
The Author of
A Visit from St. Nicholas
The full text of both sites is reproduced as Appendix A, Henry Livingston, Jr.