Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Dry Leaves That Before the Wild Hurricane Fly

Posted by Neal on December 24, 2006

Doug was showing me his reindeer-themed craft/snack from the Christmas holiday winter party at school last week. The kids had spread chocolate icing on an oblong cookie, and put on pretzels for antlers, and a single M&M (or as Glen puts it, an M) for a nose. What color M&M, you ask? Brown, the color of all Santa’s first-string reindeer’s noses? Or red, the nose-color of only one reindeer, who’s only called upon when the weather is foggy? Red, of course! Doug asked if he could have a brown one so he could do Prancer, and the parent who was helping suggested he chip off the candy shell. She was surprised when she came by later and found he’d actually done it.

Adam agreed that whenever teachers did a reindeer craft, the reindeer was always Rudolph. Then he tried to remember the other reindeer’s names. Doug and I recited the relevant couplet from “The Night Before Christmas,” and after the reindeer names we kept on going: “To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall! Now dash away, dash away, dash away all!” I kept on going:

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the housetop his coursers they flew,
With a sleigh full of toys, and Saint Nicholas, too.

Doug said, “What? What part is that?” That part wasn’t in the book he read at school.

“Really?” I asked. I know my mom has complained that she never liked that line, and I think she would sometimes skip over it when reading “The Night Before Christmas” to me when I was a kid, but I didn’t know it was being left out of newer editions of the poem. I knew Happy Christmas to all was usually changed to Merry Christmas to all, and the creepy-sounding settled our brains was typically replaced by settled down. And there’s the whole Donner/Donder thing. But removing an entire line because of baffling syntax was a new one to me. I kind of like the line: Unscrambling it into something understandable is a fun challenge.

To start with, we have the archaic as-[proposition P]-so-[proposition q] correlative construction. Converting that to a more modern [proposition q] the way [proposition p], we get:

Up to the housetop his coursers they flew, the way dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.

Next we have some adverbial phrases that appear in front of the verb phrases they modify instead of after it: up to the housetop; before the wild hurricane; and when they meet with an obstacle. Putting them in the more usual adverbial position, we get:

His coursers they flew up to the housetop, the way dry leaves that fly before the wild hurricane mount to the sky when they meet an obstacle.

And finally, we’ll simplify the topic-comment construction, wherein the subject is given and then repeated as a pronoun: his coursers, they flew. (This construction appears no less than three times in the poem, with the others being his coursers they came and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.) So the completely ordinary-syntax version of the line would be:

His coursers flew up to the housetop, the way dry leaves that fly before the wild hurricane mount to the sky when they meet an obstacle.

See, Mom? That’s not so bad, is it?

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10 Responses to “Dry Leaves That Before the Wild Hurricane Fly”

  1. Terri said

    I love your site. I am still confused. “……that fly BEFORE the wild hurricane..” Does this describe how the leaves fly before the hurricane hits? Maybe it means, “…..the way dry leave fly in front of the hurricane? Wahhh!! Maybe it should be “…..the way dry leaves that fly DURING the wild hurricane….”.

  2. Jane said

    Awesome blog! :)

  3. Rick said

    What’s next, “Another name for a rose would still be sweet” or more to the point, “A Visit from Santa Clause”?

    I’m saddened when editors feel the need to change language so modern readers do not feel challenged. In most cases, such as those you offered, it was not an improvement.

    None-the-less, Happy Christmas to you. Rick

  4. Annie B. said

    Dear me, this is my favorite line in all the poem. The “hurricane” here is poetic license for a blustery circling wind (not the literal weather bureau hurricane), and in ‘before the wild hurricane flies’ “before” means literally in front of, physically and not in time. So you get the image of leaves flying away from the wind…very poetic. I love that he takes so long to get to the “mount to the sky” and actual image of the reindeer and Santa. But I will admit, this stanza is the hardest to memorize of the poem, since none of the words are expected.
    May visions of sugarplums dance in all your heads,
    AnnieB

  5. Shayna said

    My family would always recite this poem as we drove the hour-ride home on Christmas Eve from my granpdarent’s house. Now, I am teaching it to my 4-year old. I was trying to explain this line to my husband and what I thought it meant. You and a previous responder have confirmed my thoughts. Thank you. The original wording will continue as our family tradition.

  6. Mary said

    Thank you for explaining that part of the poem. I researched on the internet for more than an hour trying to find an explanation to this specific line and you have the only blog/website. Have a happy holiday!

  7. [...] from St. Nicholas”) a couple of times before. Once it was to untangle the dense syntax of As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle mount to the sky, …. The other time, it was on the nonparallel coordination (a multiple-level coordination, in fact, [...]

  8. [...] if you really want to be pedantic about it, “A Visit from St. Nick”), which I’ve written about before: He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a [...]

  9. timrichpt said

    “As dry leaves…” is my favorite verse from this poem. I never stopped to think about it much until I started reading it to my kids. You call it “archaic” but I still hear many literary people speak and write this way. Are they just trying to sound smart?

    Thanks for your post. I really enjoyed reading it and all the comments, too. Merry Christmas.

    Tim Richardson

  10. [...] “As dry leaves that before the wide hurricane fly..” [...]

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