Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was no such thing as childhood. Oh sure, there were babies born, and young human animals who were expected to shape up and become sentient beings, but the idea of childhood as we know it did not exist. Nor did children's literature.
In an anthology edited by recent Poet Laureate Donald Hall called The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems, I learned that there wasn't much in the way of American children's poetry for quite a long time. The poem that blew the doors open, although not off, was A Visit from Saint Nicholas, by Clement C. Moore, which was first published in 1823 without authorial attribution (which is a rather long-winded way of saying "anonymously", come to think of it).
'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;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap—
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas, too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof—
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled; his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook, when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"
The illustration above is called "Merry Old Santa Claus", and was a woodcut by Thomas Nast for Harper's Weekly in 1881. Santa here is not elfin, as in many prior illustrations, and appears far more mature than earlier versions. Nast is responsible for much of what we know about Santa that didn't come from Moore's poem: Santa's home being at the North Pole, for the inclusion of elves in the system, and for Santa being fat and bearded, among other things.
About Moore's poem (authorship of which has a slight asterisk to it, I should note, as some folks claim that one of his wife's relatives (Henry Livingston) may have written it): It is written in end-stopped rhymed couplets. Each line has four stressed beats to it, and it is in ternary form, meaning that it's written using triplets, or three-syllable feet. It is largely anapestic*, although sometimes instead of having two non-stressed syllables at the front of the line, it has only one.
I think of the unstressed syllables at the start of the poem as "pick-ups", which is what they'd be in music, and this poem would be in 12/8 time. If written out musically, there'd be a two beat pick-up to the start of the poem, which is, come to think of it, how I "see" this poem in my head. The first stressed beat of the poem is "night", and it would be the downbeat (or first beat) of the first full measure if this were written on a musical score. In lines like the third one, there'd be a one-beat rest between "mouse" on the previous line and "The" at the start of the third. This makes perfect sense to me, and hopefully isn't confusing the hell out of anyone else.
Images in particular that I adore in this poem, which are, I think, much better if looked at in isolation so that the rhythm of the poem doesn't catch you up and sweep you along:
1. "The moon, on the breast of the new-fallen snow,/Gave lustre of midday to objects below." Can't you just see the moonglow? I know I can.
2. "More rapid than eagles his coursers they came" I love the comparison of the tiny reindeer to eagles, with all their strength and nobility.
3. "As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,/When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;/So up to the house-top the coursers they flew" The image of leaves wooshing along in gale-force winds, then blowing almost straight skyward when they hit a stump or fence, and the idea of the velocity he manages to convey here are terrific. I think it helps that he's got a strong anapestic thumping beat driving the reading of the poem, which makes it difficult to conceive of stopping and lingering, really.
4. And then there's the physical description of Saint Nicholas. My favorite lines as a child were the ones about his merry dimples, rosy cheeks and cherry nose, but these days I like "He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,/And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;/A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,/And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack." It's not how we picture Santa, since we always see him in a clean red fuzzy suit, but I love his sooty ashiness here.
*Anapest: a three-syllable poetic foot with two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one: "titty-TUM" to quote Stephen Fry.