I’ve followed a tradition every winter for the past few years of listening to a recording of Dylan Thomas reading A Child’s Christmas in Wales. The first time I heard the recording my sophomore year of college, I was transported. I had heard Dylan Thomas’s powerfully theatrical voice reading some of his most famous poems like, “And death shall have no dominion” and “Do not go gentle into that good night,” but I had never heard this quality of joy and buoyancy in it before. The images in A Child’s Christmas in Wales, the turns of phrase, and Thomas’s voice are all endlessly charming and completely engrossing.
His words, like his voice, have a rhythm and a musicality. Listening, you feel like you are being sung to:
“One Christmas was so much like the other, in those years around the sea-town corner now, out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.
All the Christmases roll down towards the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged, fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find.”
Many of the lines (emphasized by the way he reads the poem) capture the spirit of childhood, with its endearing wildness of imagination. Describing the presents he got as a child on Christmas he says,
“…and a celluloid duck that made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow; and a painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the animals any color I please, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds.”
He flawlessly evokes the excitement and wonder of children that is often revealed in the ridiculous but charming questions they ask:
“What would you do if you saw a hippo coming down our street?”
“I’d go like this, bang! I’d throw him over the railings and roll him down the hill and then I’d tickle him under the ear and he’d wag his tail.”
“What would you do if you saw two hippos?”
He also captures the humorous matter of fact quality with which children announce things or recall events, pausing as he reads in that way that is so particular to children (you’ll know what I mean when you listen to the recording):
“It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”
But the poem is not all childlike wonder and gaiety. Some of the lines carry with them a hidden weight:
“And some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edges of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.”
One of my favorite lines in the poem possesses a darkness that sets it mysteriously apart from the rest of the poem. It doesn’t seem to fit in with either of the speakers in the poem who seem to be, thought it is never explicitly disclosed, Dylan Thomas and some child he is telling the story to. The line stands outside the narrative like a meditative aside, one that we can easily imagine Thomas saying to himself:
“I only hear thunder sometimes, never bells.”
This line has stuck with me, popping up and repeating over and over like a lyric from a song as I am walking down the street or standing in line at the grocery store. The line, like many lines from other poems I love—“I have heard the mermaids singing each to each. I do not think they will sing to me” and “Do I dare to eat a peach?”— has rooted itself in my consciousness, become a part of me.
I cannot say why this line, “I only hear thunder sometimes, never bells,” or any other line has stuck with me. Sometimes I wonder what it would reveal about my psychological state were I to gather together and analyze all the lines that have turned into themes in my life, like themes in a piece of music.
“I only hear thunder sometimes, never bells,” recalls the image of the sad, almost tortured poet, like the one Bill Brandt captured in his famous photograph of Thomas.
The line and the photograph are of the Thomas who struggled with severe depression, whose chronic alcoholism eventually killed him, and who we can easily imagine spent his life hearing thunder and only sometimes bells.
But this is not the only Dylan Thomas. For most of the recording of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, we hear a different Dylan Thomas, one who rejoices in the spirit of Christmas, who celebrates the richness and musicality of language, whose voice itself is like a bell: brassy, resonant, jolly—ringing, if you will let it, through your entire house. I recommend cozying up by the fire some evening this holiday season—maybe with some hot chocolate or even an adult version of hot chocolate (I never usually drink it but sometimes a little peppermint schnapps in hot chocolate is exactly what I want on cold winter nights)—and losing yourself in wintery Wales.