Setting the Scene
“As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky...”
Do you know where that verse comes from? I would guess that 90 percent of you will find it somehow familiar, whether you can name that poem or not, and that if you thought about it long enough, you would dredge up some interesting memories and images to go with it: smells and sounds and senses of being gathered from childhood forward to not so long ago.
These are two of the most obscure lines from one of the most famous poems of our times, a stanza that tends to be left out when someone is saying the poem by heart, a place where the recitalist might stumble and have to resort to “da-da-da-d-da-d-da da-da-da da,” for they will know something has gone missing, just not quite what.
So look, if you will, at the stanza. It is lifted from nature; demonstrating the physics of wind and urgency of flight during a storm. It is only two lines, 18 simple words, not one of which is unfamiliar or even extraordinary. But, when strung together in the right sequence, and carefully read word for word, they provide an image that we can all but see with our eyes open and can if we close them.
If you don’t yet know where these came from, another clue; a stanza that precedes the other, appearing 12 verses before, and so are a bit more famous, yet also likely to be forgotten in a from-memory telling.
“The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
gave a luster of midday to objects below ...”
Again, a moment in nature, quieter than the first, but pure poetic observation, well-stated. We know, when we hear these words, what the author sees. In fact, these lines are what brought me to this discussion, as our December moon has indeed been giving the luster of midday to objects around my house. These lines have been running through my mind for a week or so as each night Luna lights the snow-laden forest outside my windows.
When I was a child, and my mother or dad would read the entire poem to us again and again, beginning always at about this time of year, these four lines seemed not so important as the rest of the poem. They seemed to be almost in the way of the story. I always wanted to skip from,
“Away to the window I flew like a flash
tore open the shutters and threw up the sash...”
“When what to my wondering eyes should appear,
but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.”
Get on with it, I thought. Skip past the moon and get those reindeer up on the roof and those presents down the chimney with St. Nick.
But there were those lines about the moon and then the verses about the leaves in the wind (What do leaves have to do with Santa Clause? I wondered) stuck there in the middle of the action, like 25-mile-per-hour signs on I-15 in the middle of Utah for a kid in a hurry for Christmas. Slow down, they seemed to whisper. Wait a moment and look at this.
These four lines are not a big part of “The Night Before Christmas;” four lines out of 56 in all, less than 8 percent of the total poem. They are not really necessary to the meter. Leave them out and it still reads just fine. But, there they are. Mr. Moore when he wrote it 125 years ago, did not live in our continuous action world. I wonder if it had been written today, if those lines would have survived the editorial process.
“What does this have to do with the story, Frank? Does it move the action forward?”
Well, no, it doesn’t. It sets a scene, but who has time for viewing scenes these days? We are way too busy for that. If it ain’t moving, run over it. Or past it. But don’t stop to admire it, or you could get rear-ended.
But Mr. Moore, when he wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas” 184 years ago, did not live in our continuous action world. His gift to us today might be an opportunity to slow down.
“‘twas the night before Christmas and all through the house...”
Doesn’t that introduction make you want to pull the covers up to your chin and close your eyes ad listen? Don’t your ears now beg for the familiar cadence, and don’t you smell Christmas: wood smoke, butter cookies and mulled wine and that fragrant fir in the living room below, lit and waiting for magic to happen, as if it hasn’t already? Can’t you remember laying perfectly still and warm as the familiar words poured over you, the reading voice lulling you toward sleep even as the words urged you to stay awake and wait for “the jolly old elf?”
Doesn’t that put the brakes on your busy, busy life?
I hope so. We are in the habit of these days of skipping the non-action verses. If it isn’t moving us rapidly forward (or whatever direction we are going), we aren’t interested. We are in so much of a hurry to get “someplace,” we wish to go around the glorious subtleties of our planet that are still there waiting for us, should we be willing to wait and watch for them.
Do you remember that parental Zen lesson designed to give us patience in the face of wanting to hurry toward the holidays?
“Christmas won’t come if you don’t wait for it.”
It has been so since we were children. Why do we think we can rush it now? And what better way to wait—for Christmas or for any of the other exciting moments in life—than in patient observation of the quiet beauty that surrounds us.
Merry Christmas, from out on the Scenic Route.
Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) wrote “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” (also called A Visit from St. Nicholas), in 1822.
This story first appeared in the River Journal in December 2006.