The instructive history of Clement Clarke Moore

History is full of artists in various disciplines who are most famous for things which they themselves considered of very little importance.

Take Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance. He came to loathe his creation, Sherlock Holmes, going so far as to killing him…only to be forced by popular demand to bring him back again.

Sir Alec Guinness was an outstanding actor, with many fine roles to his credit on stage and screen–but he his remembered by most people simply as Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars, a role he considered of complete insignificance.

And then there was Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore was born July 15, 1779, in New York City. He was the son of Rev. Benjamin Moore, who invented house paint. (Sorry, cheap joke.) No, actually Benjamin Moore was a president of Columbia College (now Columbia University), which makes it less than surprising that Clement Moore was educated at that school, graduating in 1798. (Benjamin Moore’s other claim to fame was that he administered communion to Alexander Hamilton after he was fatally wounded in his infamous duel with Aaron Burr.)

Moore was always interested in church matters, and eventually became professor of Oriental and Greek Literature at the Episcopal General Theological Seminary (a school erected on land that Moore himself donated) serving in that capacity from 1821 until 1850.

He was also a writer. Among other things, he translated Roman satirist Juvenal’s works into English, compiled the two-volume A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language, and published books of poetry.

He was, by all accounts, a dour, straitlaced academic type, and would no doubt be completely forgotten now, outside of a couple of footnotes in the history of New York, if he had not, sometime in the early 1820s, composed a silly little poem entitled A Visit from St. Nicholas.

We know it better today by its first line, “‘Twas the night before Christmas.”

According to one legend, Moore composed the poem for his family on Christmas Eve in 1822 during a sleigh-ride home from Greenwich Village. It was a huge hit with his children, and with everyone else who heard it, but Moore refused to have it published, apparently feeling it was beneath his dignity.

Unknown to him, however, a house guest (or possibly a family member–maybe even his wife) surreptitiously liberated a copy of the poem from Clement’s home and submitted it to Orville Holley, editor of the Troy, New York, Sentinel, who published it anonymously on December 23, 1823.

Over the next few years other newspapers reprinted the poem. Even with its growing popularity, though, Moore didn’t admit he’d written it until it appeared in a collection of poems written by New Yorkers in 1837; in 1844, he finally included it in an anthology of his own poems. He apparently did so reluctantly; as afar as he was concerned, the poem was “a mere trifle.”

(He probably could have denied authorship altogether, if he’d wished; for decades after the poem appeared, the family of Henry Livingson, Jr., who lived from 1748 to 1828, claimed he had written the poem. But today Moore’s authorship is generally accepted.)

Moore took elements that had appeared elsewhere–the idea that St. Nicholas delivered presents to children on Christmas Eve, that he drove a sled pulled by reindeer (a notion first mentioned in a poem by another writer, The Children’s Friend, published in 1821)–and combined them with descriptions from Washington Irving’s 1809 book Knickerbocker History of fat and jolly Dutch burghers with white beards, red cloaks, wide leather belts and leather boots.

(Oh, and one other thing: you know the two reindeer, “Donner and Blitzen,” that appear in the poem? They’re actually “Donder and Blitzen.” Somehow over the years we’ve turned Donder into Donner; but while Donner means “thunder” in German, in Dutch the word for thunder is “donder,” and it Dutch influences shaped Moore’s creation.)

Today, of course, A Visit from St. Nicholas is all we remember Clement Clarke Moore for. It almost single-handedly transformed the legendary St. Nicholas (Sinter Klass, in Dutch), a stern, ascetic figure in dark robes, into Santa Claus, a roly-poly man in a red suit–not bad work for “a mere trifle.”

Ultimately, the story of Clement Clarke Moore is both encouraging and discouraging to artists in all disciplines working today. Discouraging because that massive masterpiece they may be working on–their own version of Moore’s A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language–may vanish into the wide world without making so much as a ripple, but encouraging because a century or two from now, someone might be writing a column very much like this one about the Regina writer or artist or composer who tossed off “a mere trifle” one day, and so earned him or herself unexpected immortality.

You just never know.

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