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?