Faces From The Past-xiii

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The image is all but gone from the glass plate; what remains is a faded shadow of the man and his daughter, frozen forever in the interrupted moment of their chess game. When this picture was taken, Clement Clarke Moore was past middle age, with most of his achievements behind him, with the way of life he had known in rural Manhattan disappearing. Born midway through the Revolution, he would die seven days after the Battle of Gettysburg, his eighty-four years spanning the birth and breakup of the Union.

The society in which he grew up was that of a landed aristocracy virtually unchanged from pre-Revolutionary days—a gentle, courtly, leisurely world. His maternal grandmother, an unreconstructed Tory, left his parents her handsome three-story house, called Chelsea, on a wooded hill overlooking the Hudson River at what is now Twenty-third Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues. She also bequeathed them a Jersey salt meadow, four slaves, and lands upstate which had been part of a 400,000-acre patent from the Crown. Clement Moore would have no real financial burdens thrust upon him. Nor would his grandmother’s politics prove a great drawback: his father, an Episcopal minister (later Bishop of New York) who had taken no sides in the Revolution, was asked to participate in George Washington’s inaugural and was called to the side of the dying Alexander Hamilton after the duel with Burr.

Although he published works on several other subjects, Moore’s abiding interests were language and religion. After graduating from Columbia College at the head of his class, he began work on A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language , which he brought out in 1809, hoping it might break down his countrymen’s resistance to the study of Hebrew. (Apparently he did not feel the need to defend the other languages in which he was fluent—Latin, Greek, French, German, and Italian.) In 181 g he offered a part of his estate to the Protestant Episcopal Church, making possible the building of its General Theological Seminary, where he became professor of Biblical learning and for twenty-five years taught Oriental and Greek literature. Hc was also a benefactor of St. Peter’s Church, where he served faithfully as organist (given his interests, it may have been no accident that the church pews were marked with Roman numerals).

As the years passed, the burgeoning city began to crowd in on Chelsea. Twenty third Street became a busy thoroughfare; rows of small brick houses began to go up where there had been fields; woodland and marshes disappeared. Eventually nothing but the memory of the Moore house survived, in the name Chelsca Square. And if Moore himsell is remembered at all today, it is usually for a poem he wrote with no thought of publication, but as a Christmas gift for his family.

Sometime in December of 1822, he composed twenty-eight couplets of a ballad, and on Christmas live read them to his five children. The tale he told was not unfamiliar, for Washington Irving had written of the legend in Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York ; neither were the characters—members of the family at once recognized themselves as well as the chief protagonist, whom Moore had modelled on “a portly, rubicund Dutchman living in the neighborhood.” Hut just possibly they perceived that the verses captured more than the familiar, more than the love and warmth of that household at Chelsea; that they told of innocence and wonder and simple belief, of the breathless anticipation of childhood; and that they were for every family that cared enough to listen.

A relative who was there on Christmas Eve copied the poem into an album; a friend of hers from Troy. New York, read it, recorded it again, and gave it to the editor of the Troy Sentinel . A year later, in the issue of December 23, 1823, he wrote: “We do not know to whom we are indebted for the following description of … Santa Claus, his costume, and his equipage, as he goes alxait visiting the firesides of this happy land, laden with Christmas bounties.” Not only was the poem anonymous, as far as the editor knew, but it had no title. So he set a line of type over it reading: “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” and then printed the words Clement Moore had written: ’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 …

Each year a few more newspapers picked up the poem around Christmastime, and although the author never thought it worth publishing, in the early 1830’s it was printed as a little book with illustrations by Myron King, an obscure Troy engraver who brought Moore’s old elf to life. In 1844, when it appeared in a collection of his poems, Moore remarked in the preface that it was only one of many “mere trilles … [that] have been often found to aflord greater pleasure than what was by myself esteemed of more worth.”

—Richard M. Ketchum