The Night before Christmas

IMG_4359It’s the time of year to read A Visit from St Nicholas, or The Night before Christmas, by Clement Clarke Moore – although the authorship is disputed (see details here The poem was first published in 1823, but the story and the great rhyme and rhythm have made sure it’s still popular. It’s credited with fixing the image of Santa Claus in American culture, but what strikes me every time I read it is the remarkable similarities to a very different poem indeed: Byron’s The Destruction of Sennacherib. This was published in 1815, so relatively recently to Moore’s poem, but Byron’s poem narrates the fatal attempt of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, to capture Jerusalem, using as a Biblical source 2 Kings and Isaiah. Byron’s lexis is close, at times, to the biblical sources.

What first struck me about the two poems was the metre. Byron’s poem is often used in prosody lectures as an example of anapaestic metre. This is a three-syllable foot with the stress on the third syllable (in fact, ‘anapaest’ is itself anapaestic). The effect is a rolling, rollicking sound (read it aloud, quite fast) which echoes galloping hooves and creates tension and excitement. Few poems sustain this metre so clearly throughout – but ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ does (with some substitutions – it’s not absolutely consistent throughout).

Byron’s poem is heroic, dramatic, bellicose; Moore’s tells us of a miniature man in a sleigh who lands int he garden. But there are heroic similes used; ‘The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow’, for example, and more strikingly, ‘More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,’ and ‘As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,/When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.’ This last recalls Byron’s leaf metaphors:

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

Yet Byron’s poem is one of death and destruction, while Moore is reversing such imagery, offering a fresh, snowy scene, in which a kindly Father Christmas brings presents. There is snow in the last line of Sennacherib, though: ‘And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,/Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!’ – but the purpose of the metaphor is quite different to the snow of Santa’s beard, or the moonlit snow of the scene. Both poets, however, have a penchant for a striking visual image.

I’m not quite sure what my conclusion is here. It’s quite possible Moore had read the earlier poem and was struck by its rhythmic movement and the excitement the metre brought to the lines, I suppose, and that in writing something with such a different purpose but a similar structure, he was almost parodying the much more famous poet. He was, after all, an erudite, educated man, a classical and biblical scholar. But maybe it’s all coincidence. It has entertained me for a while, though. ‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!’


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