Flashback of a Flashback Friday: “And what to my wondering eyes should appear . . .”
Posted by Stephanie Whelan
Holidays are here and I’m rushing back and forth doing way too much as usual! But for this Flashback we’re going back to a remarkable poem of one narrator’s encounter with a supremely supernatural event. Flying objects, home invaders, magical powers . . . there’s an urban fantasy story in there for sure! I’m sure you remember:
The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore (c1823)
Though originally published under the title “A Visit From St. Nicholas” most readers are more familiar with the title taken from the first line of the poem. The poem opens on the night before Christmas and describes one awake narrator’s encounter with St. Nicholas as he comes to deliver presents.
Legend has it that Moore first published this poem anonymously after writing it for his children. He was interested in being perceived as an erudite professor of Hebrew and Greek Literature and this poem didn’t fit that image. However, he finally took ownership of the poem in 1937 when he published it in an anthology of his own works. Clement Clarke Moore probably never expected that little poem to be the thing that lived on as his legacy and became one of the most popular American poems ever published. Every Christmas this particular poem is dusted off and read by thousands. Usually the text is stumbled over by thousands as well. While Moore’s language is something I find appealing in its’ artistry, the archaic constructions can tend to trip the more contemporary human tongue.
I first heard the poem from my mother. It’s one of the earliest stories that introduces many children to the idea of Santa Claus and the myths and legends surrounding him. While Moore did not invent the character of St. Nicholas for the poem, the imagery he chooses to use and the traditions he highlights have become the ones that generations of young people remember. They’re the ones we regularly picture when we talk about Santa.
The poem itself is a lovely bit of wordplay. Who doesn’t love reciting the names of those reindeer? (quick bit of trivia–did you know that Donder and Blitzen translate as Thunder and Lightning?) Even as archaic as some of the language and imagery is, the poem still evokes the magical arrival the figure we’ve come to know as Santa Claus. My favorite lines, however are those less concerned with the jolly man in fur, and more to do with the sheer poetic beauty. The first line I’ve used in the title above. The second is this one:
“As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky”
Just marvelous language that trips over the tongue! As a child I didn’t quite understand what it meant, but like a magical charm the words drew me in until I was quite in love with repeating the lines.
There have been a few changes to the text over the years. Occasionally a copy of the story will leave out the part about St. Nicholas smoking a pipe . But a more common change comes at the beginning of the story. With “mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap” many modern versions will complete the line “had just settled down (or settled our heads) for a long winter’s nap”. The original text says “had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.”
I admit I hadn’t heard the original line until I found an old copy as an adult–and the line still seems awkward when I read it.
I’ll be settling down with an old copy to read to my children this Christmas. It’s a great flight of fantasy that is shared by so many. I can only hope my own kids will enjoy it as much as I did when I was little.
What are your favorite lines from this iconic poem? Comments Welcome!
About Stephanie WhelanI'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.
Posted on December 11, 2015, in Flashback Fridays and tagged Authors, Books, Children's Books, Children's Literature, fantasy, Historical Fantasy, kidlit, literature, MG Books, Middle-Grade Fiction, Reading, reviews. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.