Saturday, December 16, 2023

A Child's Christmas in Wales (1952).

 "When I was a boy, every thing was right" - The Beatles, She Said, She Said.

"And I was green, and carefree...Time let me play and be...", Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill

In some ways, I guess I was always trying to find my way back to those first Christmases.  You must have some idea of what I mean.  For this is something almost everyone has stockpiled in the attic storehouse of the mind.  Christmas was something else when you're young.  This is not to say that it isn't special (to me, at least) now.  Far from it.  As of this writing, I can claim with a certain sense of relieved pride that it's still one of my favorite times of the year.  There may be a bit of competition between the Winter Holiday, and the Autumn Festival known as Halloween.  Yet on the whole, it's still the damn near perennial image of the Yule Tree that manages to win out time and again.  Pretending or else acknowledging that you're a ghost, or some other creature of the night will always have a certain element of fun and truth in it.  However, enchantment not only has its place, but will always have its day in the end.  I think the reason most of us tend to gravitate toward Christmas so much is because its kind of the one time in the year when we can permit ourselves to be reminded of the Romantic potential invested in the strange order of things.

When I was a boy, Christmas was different.  It's true enough as these things go.  Though I'll swear I may never know how to get others to believe it.  Rather, let's say belief isn't the issue.  There's tons of us out there who have had similar experiences.  Odds are even if you put us in a room together, and made us compare notes, what you'd get is this single story made up of separate voices.  Each of them combing together to create a collective collage tapestry of decked halls, lights strung upon fences, branches, and house tops.  Along with the requisite number of other familiar elements.  Aside from the necessary inclusion of shops filled with toys, decorations, and paraphernalia, you also had a complete childhood cabinet full of Holiday viewing fare, including all your old friends, such a Big Bird, Frosty, the Grinch, and Rudolph (whose story may have been a secret parable about the treatment and plight of Judaism during the Season, though this is something you only pick up on once you get older).  Then come the personal elements of the Holiday.  This is the realm of memory.  That moment when Christmas ceases to be a public institution, and instead becomes a part of whoever you are, because you were a child, once.  When you're a kid, life is Epic even before you know the full meaning of the word.

And the Season held you green and carefree under the mercy of its means.  It's the moment, in other words, where Christmas becomes something you were almost able to hold in your hands, once upon a time.  For me, the moment when it's time to bring a fresh cut tree into our house was always something special.  It was never just a matter a looking for the prime decoration to install in some out of the way place.  It was a lot more like going on a grand hunt.  The journey was to make your way through a sea of green, and it was never really a tree you were after.  Instead, then as now, what I look for is that same picture postcard, faded perhaps here and there, yet still vibrant in a way that time can't reach.  You must know something of what I'm talking about.  It's not the tree itself.  Or at any rate, it's never just the next specimen you happen to run across.  Instead, it's the Ur example.  The primordial product that catches your eye, and lets you know that you've found not just the last grand decoration of the season, but also something of an icon that symbolizes not just a Holiday, but anything that can be called right in life.

When I was a boy, bringing home the tree for the Holidays was almost like a solemn occasion.  The kind of moment filled with a world of import that only little kids can manage.  So no.  It wasn't a tree my parents and I brought.  It was this strange yet magnificent god of the earth, made of wood and pine.  And whenever you tried to gaze up and take it all in, you might have been lucky enough to recapture at least a sliver of the mindset that once made the ancient Vikings who dwelled the in the Northern Forests regard it as just a mere branch of Yggdrasil.  The great cosmic tree whose trunk and branches make up the very roots of the world itself, and on who all rely, in one way or another.  At least that's what some of our ancestors might have believed, or hoped was true anyway.  It's also close enough to what a Christmas Tree looks like when you're just a kid.  All of which is to say that as things stand, the childhood oriented nostalgia attached to the Holidays has become a kind of cottage industry all of its own.  In fact, I'm guilty of offering my own two cents to this growing field of memoir writing.

Though I suppose it does raise a question in the minds of the more curious among us.  Where did such a literary-artistic tradition come from in the first place?  Along with the stockings, Yule Logs, and gift giving, perhaps the most common and therefore unremarked aspects of the Season is the tradition of what might be termed the Holiday Memories genre of storytelling.  The examples of the kind of tale I'm thinking about now are thankfully still well remembered and loved to this day.  The best sample specimen of this seasonal tradition remains Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story.  These are the narratives in which the storyteller and the protagonist are one and the same.  And we follow along with the narrator as they try to recount what their own experience of that fabled Time of the Season was like when they were just kids.  The usual contents of this type of a autobiographical narrative are often expressed in a predominantly comic vein, or mode of expression.  It's almost become a formula at this point, in other words.  We follow the main character over the course of one Season, and observe how their experiences of that time may have helped them learn and grow.  Sometimes this can result in the familiar trope of nostalgia tinged with sadness and loss, though it's the comic that continues to be the ultimate defining trait of the sub-genre.  Sometimes being no more than recounting a funny incident.

So while the idea of the Christmas Memoir has been around for a while, and some efforts like Shepherd's have become world famous, that still leaves the question of origins unresolved.  Where did this particular Holiday sub-genre come from, and who helped give it its start?  I think it's useless to try and appeal here to the likes of Shepherd, Charles Schulze, or even Dr. Seuss.  These are the most famous literary icons of the Season.  However, only one of them has ever written down a proper a Christmas Memoir.  The other two don't really count.  Schulze is just so good at being a storyteller that he can sometimes make you think he's being autobiographical when in fact he's not.  All Seuss is doing, meanwhile, is telling no more than just a straight made-up fable about personal alienation in relation to the Holiday Festival itself.  The kind of narrative we're looking for (the one that guys like Shepherd have gone on to make famous, in other words) is a much more elusive beast.  It has its ultimate origins in the field of personal recollection.  And yet for that very reason, it's history and beginnings can be harder to pinpoint for those who are content to just rest easy in the winter festival itself.  

For those of us with a more bookish turn of mind, finding out where your favorite stories come from is all part of the fun.  In the case of Memoirs of the Holidays, it's kind of amazing just how sparse the bread crumb trail turns out to be.  As near I can tell, the writer who came closest to first breaking ground in this sub-genre might have to be Washington Irving.  Turns out the writer most famous for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow also penned an article about Christmas customs in England way back in the day.  It was a short non-fiction piece called Old Christmas, that Irving later incorporated into his volume of short works known as The Sketchbook (which also contain the first appearance of Ichabod Crane and his fatal Hallow's Eve Ride).  While a convincing case can be made that Irving deserves a place of honor as one of the key shapers or architects of the ways in which the Holiday is celebrated in America to this day, I'm still not sure whether he counts as the first person to create the Christmas autobiography as we now know it.  If he does, then the caveat is that he makes for a very rough prototype.  Unlike Shepherd, Irving is less interested in recounting his own Yuletide experiences, than in tracing down the history of Christmas itself, and the customs this has given birth to throughout history.  To be fair, Irving's own writings on the subject make for a fascinating topic in itself.

However, I'm not so sure this is what we're talking about when we think of the modern seasonal reminiscence as we know it today.  The perfect irony here is that the best possible candidate for this kind of writing doesn't even have its roots in the United States, but rather the Welsh seaside of England.  In a way, I suppose this is kind of fitting.  As it ties into Irving's own explorations of the history of Christmas Customs.  However, the irony is doubled in a further sense.  Because while the ultimate origins of this story lies in a childhood lived out among the Welsh Coast, it's actual literary start came about once upon a time, somewhere in the very middle of the Beat Era New York City.

Where it All Got Started.

To begin somewhere close to the beginning.  Once upon a time in New York City, there lived a pair of college friends.  There names were Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Mantell.  Both were gainfully employed.  Barbara worked at Liveright Publishing; the kind of bookselling firm that could only have existed in an age before the arrival of both the Internet and market conglomeration.  While Mantell was busy in the soon to be heady world of the NYC music industry.  Each of the girls were also Humanities scholars.  Both also counted as cum laud graduates from Columbia University.  Which was a rare feat for a woman to achieve in the year 1952, when this story takes place.  Both of them could be spoken of as being somewhere near to the right place at an ideal time.  The Second World War was seven in the rear view mirror by the time this story takes place, and the mood of the Nation was perched somewhere on a precarious tip edge.  On the one hand, there still a leftover patina of patriotism from our victory in what was then known as The Big One.  This tended to result in a lingering sense of national pride; on the surface of things, anyway.   The flipside to all this is that the Country itself was on the cusp of a lot of changes and upheavals.  Holdridge and Mantell's big idea seems to have been a part of this ongoing, national transfiguration.

The two girls were Liberal Humanists to their core, because those were the values that a good education from teachers who gave an actual care about their well-being had managed to instill into them both.  So they each had a good idea of how the world worked, and of how that applied to the times that were a-changin', as well as their own place in it.  They saw how it might be possible for them each to make a shared, joint contribution to the shifting milieu of American life in general.  The particulars of their idea was simple.  They both just thought it would be a hoot if they could start up a record label of their own.  This one wouldn't cater to the popular trends or artforms of the day, however.  Whatever the girl's opinion about Rhythm and Jazz, or the first stirrings of that new "Rocking" sound that was emerging from the likes of Chess, and later on Sun Records, none of it would ever be a feature for their own label.  Instead, their focus would cater to the written word.  What they'd do is make recordings of narrations from some of the best works of literature out there.  They wouldn't limit themselves to just the Classics, either.  Their label would be a showcase for the best new talent on the literary scene.  The girls chose to name their joint venture under the label of Caedmon Records, after England's first poet.

Holdridge and Mantell were also smart about how to make sure their efforts had a successful launch, right out of the starting gate.  They knew their first spoken word LP had to be attached to a Name.  It couldn't be just anyone, however.  A writer like Charles Dickens was well on his way to becoming a holiday staple.  Yet such a choice would run the risk of getting them labeled as just another novelty brand.  The girls wanted this to be a prestige venture.  The kind of thing you had to pay serious attention to, once you heard it.  Their first release had to feature a new Talent, then.  Someone whose efforts were starting to command a great deal of respect in all the major literary circles.  The kind of name that both Book People and the public would sit up and listen to, in other words.  Barbara and Marianne found the answer to their search on the evening of February 23, 1952.  That night, a new arrival from across the pond, a Welsh poet by the name of Dylan Thomas, was going to preside over the American debut of his own poetry.  May and Babs had both heard that this man Thomas was starting to make something of an impact in the world of modern verse, so their curiosity led them to show up as part of the audience at New York's 92nd Street YMCA, and they listened as Thomas recited his verse.

From what can be gathered, it seems that by the end of the evening, Holdridge and Mantell knew they'd found the perfect writer to help launch Caedmon Records.  They enquired where the poet was staying and found out he was garreted at the Hotel Chelsea.  The same place where John Lennon would later spend his final days.  At the moment, however, Thomas was the main attraction lingering around the place, and so together, Barbara and Marianne called upon his lodgings, and discovered he was there.  They explained the conceit of Caedmon Records to Thomas, who must have thought it sounded like a good idea.  Because he agreed to their proposal of him being the first marquee name on their label.  A contract was drawn up, though financing had to come out of the girls' own pockets, yet to his credit, Thomas was a true sport about the whole thing.  Somewhere between February 22 to the 25th, the first Caedmon LP was recorded at Steinway Hall, and Thomas became something very like a Rock and Roll star.  The first release by Mary and Babs's self-start company was received with great fanfare, and it fulfilled just about every dream they could have had for their wishes to successfully find their voices.

In time, Caedmon Records went on to be seen for what it truly still is to this very day.  It was a pioneer in the history of English literature by being the first record company dedicated to sound recordings of spoken prose fiction.  In other words, Marianne Mantell and Barbara Holdridge are the women who gave us the audiobook.  It's something they were both recognized for later on, when they each received a lifetime achievement award from the Audio Publishers Association.  It was perhaps the biggest recognition their own efforts have ever received.  Dylan Thomas was just sort of the guy who helped out.  The contents of that first Caedmon recording might seem almost quaint by today's standards.  The A side contains a smattering the poet's most familiar and well known works, such as Fern Hill and Ceremony After a Fire Raid.  However, it seems to have been the contents of the record's B side that really helped Barbara and Marianne realize their own dreams.  The whole second course of Thomas's first audiobook is taken up by what almost sounds like an entire short story.  Yet it's really a Holiday memoir.  It was spoken entirely by the author himself, and it's known as A Child's Christmas in Wales.

The Poet and the Poetry. 

When it comes to Dylan Thomas, I'm faced with an ironic contradiction of sorts.  It's like meeting a familiar face that you've never really known before.  All of which is to say I'm pretty much a late arrival in terms of the poet and his work.  Dylan Thomas is one of those people who seems to have survived through the years through a bizarre combination of reputation and quotability.  Owen Sheers, for instance, labels Thomas as "an unlikely rock star" for his life of hard drinking and partying in between bouts of composing verse, and giving the occasional, celebrated poetry recital.  Besides this, Dylan's greatest claim to fame seems to hang on that one line of verse which urges the reader, "Do not go gentle into that good night".  There may be something to advice like that.  The point, however, is that this seems to be as far as the poet's reputation goes among the public.  If it proves anything, then it's the unspoken maxim that pop-culture has little to no memory of the Arts, its history, or the artists who make it up in general.  It's not a case of the audience doing whatever it wants with any given artwork.  It's more that the limits of our imaginative horizons are severely truncated almost by necessity.

This results less in a rich tapestry of arts and culture, along with a list of all the great names who gave us the entertainment that practically raised all of us.  Instead, it's more like a rough patchwork quilt with a lot of gaps in it.  What else could our pop-culture memory be when it seems like all the "grown-ups" never bothered to make us aware of the rich resources just lying around, waiting to be picked up and explored.  So that we might be able to reach a better understanding of why we love our favorite books, films, and sometimes even poetry.  This is something I'm guilty of myself when it comes to a writer like Thomas.  I've only just begun my learner's permit on this guy and his art, in that sense.  The good news is I've been able to rectify that with some help.  In what follows, I've relied on the work and scholarship of John Goodby, Annis Pratt, and Alastair Fowler.  These critics have been somewhat beyond value in helping to gain a clearer picture of the poet's art and life, even with those inevitable points where I find myself forming my own judgments.  The view of the life they have managed to supply is as follows.

Dylan Thomas was in many ways, a product of England's Welsh Coast, and its folklore.  He was born on the 27th of October, 1914; right on the cusp of the First World War.  His parents were David and Florence Thomas, and right away, that turned out to be the future poet's first major advantage and influence.  David Thomas seems to have been one of those teachers of English Literature who is more or less dead serious about it.  He was never the kind of gung-ho, old school, switch carrying pedagogue who is able to strangle any possible enthusiasm for reading right there in the cradle with mandatory rote memorization, followed up by endless, interminable recitals.  Instead, everything I've been able to find out about Thomas's father paints him as one of those unsung Liberal Humanists.  The kind of bookworm, in other words, with a genuine fan boy's enthusiasm for the written word, and who was then successful at passing this interests on down to his son.  Dave Thomas's Humanism seems to have been somewhat of the Myth and Ritual variety.  Annis Pratt tells that he took a keen interest in Welsh folklore and its history as a teacher, and that these were among the first literary sources that his son inherited.

"Dylan Thomas lived in a region that was rich not only in folklore but in the origins of folklore; as a boy he explored a landscape shaped...and marked by sites of a prehistoric, druid, sabbatic, and Christian legend.  During his father's boyhood the skeleton of a "red lady" had been found surrounded by mammoth tusks in the glacial age caves beneath Gower Peninsula, near Swansea.  The hummock of Cefn Y Bryn with "druid well" and reputed "King Arthur's stone" also rises out of the Gower Peninsula, while the countryside of Glamorgan and Carmarthenshire, where many of his relatives lived, is full of landmarks reputedly built by the druids.

"Dylan Thomas' paternal grandfather, Evan Thomas, was a railway guard at Johnstown, a suburb of Carmarthen.  This city had served for a long time as cultural and administrative center for the west of Wales; it was a Roman and Norman stronghold and, before that, the ecclesiastical center of the druid religion.  Merlin reputedly presided there as arch-druid, and the Black Book of Carmarthen (which Thomas parodies in "The Orchards" as "The Black Book of Llaregubb") was discovered in its priory of Black Canons.  The contents of this and other books of folklore had been expounded at the beginning of the nineteenth century by Edward Davies in The Mythology and Rites of the British Druids and Celtic Researches on the Origin, Traditions and Language of the Ancient Britons.  It has been conjectured that Dylan Thomas might have read these two volumes...(5-6)".  If this is true, then the most likely source the poet could have found and poured through such volumes would be the copies on his father's bookshelf.  It's not too implausible to imagine the elder Thomas passing along these quaint and curious items along to a willing son, who was turning out to be just as much a bookwork as he used to be.

Pratt then drops one hell of a bombshell for lovers of Gothic fiction, when she makes the following claim.  "It seems likely that sometime before the age of fifteen Thomas immersed himself in the tales of Machen, de la Mare, and whatever writers he could find who dealt with the legends of Egypt and Wales.  Oscar Williams tells us that Thomas knew The Book of the Dead, and besides The Mabinogian he may have read some such compendium of tales for the young as Baikie's Wonder Tales of the Ancient World (11)".  Any true fans of the Horror genre will of course know and be familiar with the works of Arthur Machen.  H.P. Lovecraft called him perhaps the best of his own literary mentors.  And works like The Great God Pan and The Hill of Dreams have gone on to exert a pivotal amount of artistic influence of the work of Peter Straub and Thomas himself, respectively.  Pratt is able to go into a convincing amount of detail that lays out the ways in which Thomas's efforts can be seen as thematically linked in several areas to the work of the fellow Welsh creator of the Folk Horror subgenre.  Now, with all of this said, here is kind of where I'll have to pour some water on the fire.

I hope I'm not curbing anyone's enthusiasm by saying that for all of the convincing evidence Pratt is able to marshal for the influence of both ancient and modern popular fantastic fiction on the poet's own work.  The fact remains that Thomas's is a poetry that still winds up branching off into his own avenues of creative exploration.  And while it's true that writers like Machen, or figures like King Arthur and Merlin were probably all part of the permanent storehouse of the writer's Imagination, his use of this material differed in many fundamental ways from that of a scribbler of pulp short stories.  For whatever reason, Thomas's own creative expression can be described as generally "mythic".  However, it's a lot less effusive and obvious than the eldritch world of Machen's secondary worlds.  For one thing, however much he might have liked Gothic fiction, Thomas's own output never really falls into the same category.  You won't be able to find a fictional main character wandering into a haunted wood and encountering King Arthur's magical court advisor waiting at it's heart for the reader.  Thomas just never bothered with that more typical type of artistic expression.  Indeed, I can't recall ever running across a figure like the original magic man in any of the poems of his that I've read.

Instead, what Thomas tends to do with all of this folkloric material is to combine and condense them to create this heightened view of the ultimate reality undergirding the universe in relation to human life.  I know that sounds an awful lot like what Machen is up to, yet it's still different in the long run.  For one thing, if there are fantastical elements in Thomas's literary output, he never makes it entirely obvious.  His usual method of composition is to place before the reader a number of what I can only describe as an almost constant procession of poetic images drawn from nature.  The poet will describe each of these normal seeming items in terms that can transfigure the simple branches of an ordinary tree, or pieces of hay in a farm loft into cosmological symbols of time and passing in relation to human life.  Those last three concepts appear (so far as I can tell) to be the overarching main themes of most of Thomas's poetry.  Here's a sample of what I mean from the poet's Ceremony After a Fire Raid:

"I know not whether

Adam or Eve, the adorned holy bullock
Or the white ewe lamb
Or the chosen virgin
Laid in her snow
On the altar of London,
Was the first to die
In the cinder of the little skull,
O bride and bride groom
O Adam and Eve together
Lying in the lull
Under the sad breast of the head stone
White as the skeleton
Of the garden of Eden (web)". 

That's a rather heady sounding brew in a day and age when the Art of Verse seems to be on the decline everywhere except for the music genre.  It can be difficult for the reader to decipher even when not taken in isolation.  The actual event the entire poem is describing is the aftermath of a Nazi air raid during England's Blitzkrieg during the Second World War.  It was a conflict that Thomas got to experience up close in person as an air warden in London's Soho district.  It would later become on of several meccas for the Summer of Love (more of which anon), at the time the poem was composed, however, most the neighborhood (and even some of its residents) had been reduced to rubble and ash by the German Luftwaffe.  A poem like Ceremony was the author's attempt to make sense of all the destruction he has to witness going on around him.  It's concerned with ways to mourn the lost, and what it means in the potential for a grander scheme of things.  Like just about everything else he ever wrote, Thomas's verse takes the meaning of these cataclysmic events and heightens them to levels of ultra-cosmological meaning.  The upshot of such literary practice is that it places the writer somewhat outside the realm of the sort of Gothic Celtic Revivalism characterized by the work of Arthur Machen. 

Instead, Thomas is best seen as kind of this literary throwback to an earlier form of Fantasy writing.  Rather, let's say that he reaches back into the deep artistic well our of which the modern Fantasy genre eventually emerged from.  So far as I can tell, the best way I can find to describe the life and poetry of Dylan Thomas is to claim that he fulfills two roles in one.  He's both a throwback to the Romantic Movement, while also serving as a kind of living bridge, or sorts.  Thomas got his start at the height of T.S. Eliot's Mythical Modernist aesthetics in the realm of verse letters.  In fact, it was Eliot who discovered the Welsh versifier when he was still just this nothing kid living with his parents.  The writer of The Waste Land is also the one who helped him get his first start in the poetry gig by finding outlets that would publishes Thomas's work.  The poet's start therefor places him as a part of the Modernist Movement that Eliot and others helped inaugurate.  The crucial difference between Eliot and Thomas is that the latter seems to have progressed onward from there.  His art was protean rather than static.

While Eliot has gone on to become a fixed point for the entirety of literary Modernism, critics and readers have found Thomas a bit more difficult to pigeonhole.  I'd argue that's because he became one of the few poets to effect a successful transition from one artistic milieu to another.  It's crucial to add that throughout all this, Thomas's own expansive poetic outlook was one that seems to have been able to maintain its own artistic integrity.  There are no discernable contradictions or reconfigurations in Thomas's method and theory like can be found in Eliot's own critical writings.  Instead, it seems to be more that Thomas was able to discern the kind of direction that artistic trends, and modes of expression were taking as the years went on.  There was a sense of movement in the air.  Creative expression was starting to move out of the Waste Land and into more fertile pastures.  Thomas seems to have been lucky enough to pick up on all this with a true artist's instincts.  The best part for him wasn't just that he'd found a new way forward for his poetry, but also that it was one that allowed him to keep the vital artistic core of his work intact, even as its mode of expression changed to suit the current moment.

This is what I mean by describing Thomas as a bridge, and well as a throwback.  He was an inheritor of two fundamentally interrelated strands of poetic practice at once, and was able to shepherd his own efforts through them both.  He may have gotten his start in the Modernist zeitgeist of T.S. Eliot, yet he was able to go on from there when he saw the next step that English letters were starting to take.  When it happened, he was there to meet the change head on, and was able to put his efforts on the map in a way that almost outshines his first phase under Eliot's wing.  A lot of his success can be chalked up to the fact that Dylan knew he could change directions without compromising the fundamental core of his artistry.  It's this same core that he brought to the fore in his later poetry and prose.  In being able to do so, he became not just an inheritor, or a bridge, but also something of an architect in his own right.

In order to understand how this is so, we need to go a bit into the core of Dylan's poetry, and what it meant for his career and legacy.  To simplify a very complex argument, it makes the most sense to see Thomas as the closest thing to an inheritor to the kind of poetry exemplified by the likes of William Wordsworth.  Perhaps a better, yet more complex way of saying it is to claim that it wound up being being Dylan Thomas who was able to finish what Wordsworth started.  There's a great deal of history and thought behind a sentence like that.  So I'm going to have to find a way to keep it simple as possible.  For me, it all seems to come from what happened to the Romantic Movement after the last of its originators had faded away into the Pantheon, so to speak.  I don't really think the Movement guys like Wordsworth helped start ever went away, or anything like that.  In fact, as I've at least hinted at elsewhere, it transitioned from the metrical verse compositions of the Lake Poets, and found its way into what might very well have been its first proper modern prose expression in the Fantasy genre.

It was a series of Victorian and Edwardian children's authors, stretching all the way from John Ruskin to perhaps even J.R.R. Tolkien who kept the kind of aesthetic strain guys like Wordsworth had developed alive and kicking through their efforts in pioneering the modern fantastic.  What they were doing, in essence, is taking the kind of phantasmagoria found in Romantic Poetry, and giving it a prose playground to work in.  I keep singling out Wordsworth in all of this, however, because it really does seem to be his specific poetic legacy that Dylan Thomas took up and ran with all the way.  The reason for this is the unshakable sense I get from each of their respective poems that both Wordsworth and Thomas are basically covering the same playing field.  Both of them are poets of time, memory, mortality, and childhood.  Each of them seems to present the reader with a series of snapshots of people, places, and things from real life, and then grant the reader a kind of heightened window or vantage point at which to view it all.  For Thomas, the universe is almost like an alive thing.  Life is like a kind of book.  It's pages, settings, characters, and events can all tell of riddles, and great secrets, if you just have the eyes to see, and ears to hear.  It's all very akin to Shakespeare's Great Theater of the World.

This is the lens through which Thomas and his poetry view the world.  For a time, this was how Wordsworth might have felt as well.  At least, this was how he tried to write and live his life until complications got in the way.  The single most fascinating book I've ever read about Wordsworth and his poems comes from the pages of The English Poetic Mind, by Charles Williams.  In that critical study, Williams notes how what might be termed the "poetic enthusiasm" of the writer's artistry starts out on a high note.  Williams own term for this seems to be "the joy of poetry discovering itself".  It's very much like a first love.  The artist has found the meter, mode, and method that he is good at, and can make well.  The author has found something he's good at, for once, and he knows it.  So then the poetry takes off with a wild, rapid, and almost carefree concern.  Williams points out that this is how it also was for Shakespeare and Milton, along with most of the Romantic Poets.  Something else Wordsworth shared with the authors of Hamlet and Paradise Lost was the onset of a personal crisis.

For both Milton and Shakespeare, this crisis seems to have be a shared recognition that, in the Bard's words, "The Time is Out of Joint".  The best coverage on the nature of this crisis and how Big Bill from Stratford faced it head on can be found within the pages of Theodore Spencer's Shakespeare and the Nature of Man.  For Milton's part in all this, the best resource I recommend is Nicholas McDowall's Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton, the first volume of which is still currently available as of this writing.  The point here is that Williams' own study is able to make a convincing case that these moments of crisis were challenges that both Milton and Shakespeare were able to meet, match, and eventually overcome.  The same, however, cannot be said for Wordsworth.  Much like his collaborator, S.T. Coleridge, Wordsworth faced his fair share of hardships.  The difference between the two is that Wordsworth seems to have just let it all eat away at him in a way that Coleridge never did.  Trust me when I say there is no greater irony than learning that a compulsive drug addict like Samuel Taylor was the one who managed to give himself the happy ending.  While his upstanding friend never bothered.

It is one of the most fascinating and perhaps telling dichotomies that I've ever witnessed in the study and history of literature and storytelling.  It's like one life-long twin parable about what makes the difference between a fighter and a quitter, for lack of any better words.  The upshot for this article is that Williams is able to classify Wordsworth's poetry as a Great Work that was never truly brought to any kind of satisfactory completion.  It starts out on a ringing note of promise, and then slowly begins to slip away into a morass of personal disappointment and skepticism.  The years pass, Romanticism itself is able to survive and thrive, though it's a laurel that Wordsworth had long since cast aside.  Then T.S. Eliot and the Modernists come along and revive the art of English Verse.  Into this milieu steps Dylan Thomas, and from what I can tell, his poetry picks up were The Prelude leaves off.  In works like Fern Hill, we see Thomas reaching back into the same well that Wordsworth was once inspired by.  The difference with Thomas is that, like Coleridge, his poetic light never really seems to have ever gone out.

Alastair Fowler has even gone so far as to claim that "Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality was a primary model" for Thomas's Fern Hill.  "Thomas must have expected his readers to recognize similarities in his expression...Therefore the apparent contrasts are very noticeable.  To Wordsworth, the thought of his childhood as a blessing is not so much...'that which is most worthy to be blest" for certain metaphysical promptings.  By contrast, Thomas seems precisely to celebrate childhood's 'delight and liberty'...Again, Wordsworth's stoic resignation to the loss of joy and to a place in history - 'Another race hath been, and other palms are won' - seems very different from (Thomas)...(Dylan) sings so that his own reader 'in thought will join [the] throng' of those that play.  The dreaming and waking stanzas of Fern Hill realize Wordsworth's 'freshness of a dream', the singing sea returns to 'that immortal sea/Which brought us hither (240-41)".  This is what I mean when I describe Thomas as a Romantic Inheritor.  Fern Hill is a poem that many critics and readers consider to be Dylan best effort, and later on it may help us to illuminate certain key aspects of the writer's own retrospective Christmas memoir.  

Before that, however, it's seems important to note the ways in which Thomas is also a bridge spanning and connecting the poetics of the past to that of his own contemporary age.  It's seems possible that one of the other reasons that Thomas was able to succeed where Wordsworth failed is because in addition to confronting the bugbear of disenchantment head on, Dylan was also able to find one other element of consolation that the earlier Lake Poet never did.  Thomas had the good fortune to make acquaintance with some of the most promising names of the new rising generation of Post War artistic voices.  This happened later on at the start of the 50s.  It was during his first reading tours in New York that Thomas and his works met and/or caught the attention of a number of authors who were probably already taking a great deal of inspiration from the likes of Fern Hill even before its author arrived in the City that Never Sleeps.  Some of these names might have a passing familiarity to us even today.  Among them were writers like Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jack Kerouac.  Together, these and other writers and poets would go on to constitute both the Beat Generation, and American Counterculture.

Dylan Thomas turned out to be the writer who acted as a shared source of inspiration for just about all of the important names in this movement in underground letters.  It also didn't hurt that Thomas was able to be on hand long enough to act as poetic mentor to a lot of the Beats in their early literary efforts.  It was more or less as described in a line of dialogue in a documentary by director Owen Sheers.  "Not very long ago, readers of poetry in the English speaking world found their senses quickening at the sound of a new voice.  A man still in his twenties had quite casually walked in and sat down among the geniuses of English Poetry".  As Sheers further helps elaborate the nature of Thomas's situation at this time, "There are several reasons for Dylan Thomas's extraordinary success in America.  Perhaps most significant, though, was his timing, which was perfect.  His leaping rhythms spoke to the Beat writers, and to great Jazz musicians like Charlie Parker.  Allen Ginsburg, who became one of the gurus of this new age was enchanted.  As was Bob Dylan, who borrowed the poet's name and never gave it back".  This is what I mean when I say that the writer of Fern Hill was also a living bridge.

He seems to have been one of those once in a lifetime talents.  The kind of writer who might have a hand in defining his own era of literary prowess.  Yet he never just leaves it at that.  He has go on from there and help act as a mentor to the next rising generation that comes after him.  In fact, now that I think about it, aside from maybe T.S. Eliot, the only other talents that fit this description would be Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Norman Lear, George Martin, and Peter Blake.  In fact, it was Martin and Blake (two of the key background architects of the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club album) who would later return the favor back to where it all started, by staging a live performance of the only play that Dylan Thomas ever wrote, Under Milk Wood.  This then is as good a condensed snapshot of the life, career, artistry, and legacy of the author of A Child's Christmas in Wales.  The reason for going into what might sound on the surface like a lot of extraneous detail is because for an autobiographical fragment like the one we're about to unpack, there really is no other way to unlock its secrets except by knowing as much about its overall background and context as possible.  Strange as it may sound, if you want to understand what sounds like a simple holiday memoir, you need to know the forces that shaped it.

Conclusion: An Underrated Piece of Pioneering Romantic Holiday Writing. 

I think that most modern readers will be reminded of A Christmas Story by a tale like this, more than anything else.  In a way, that's kind of understandable.  For one thing, it is possible to make the case that what both Thomas and Jean Shepherd are doing amounts to little more than recalling the children they were, and the kind of lives they led as adolescents as seen through the prism of nostalgic adulthood.  That's also sort of what Thomas himself might have referred to as "a fair cop", so far as criticism goes.  The second reason for why films like Shepherd's are the ones that most readers will be likely to latch on to probably stems from modern audiences not having that much choice or say in the matter.  We're all the products of a clouded and patchwork pop culture memory, after all.  Even when it comes to stories about the most famous and near universally celebrated Holiday on the calendar, the truth is that our historical comprehension and recollection of Christmas tales past seems to go just so far and no further.

It's the kind of thing that tends to leave the viewer or reader in a sort of interesting conundrum.  When it comes to explaining why we like certain books, films, or most commonly, TV specials about this time of the year, we have only such meager storehouses of explanation to fall back on.  This is because our memories of the Holiday and its many storied past often tend not to reach all that far to begin with.  As a result, we sort of allow ourselves no say whatever if it becomes a matter of venturing further out past the basics of what little we know about the tales that are, or can be told at this time of year.  So, when judging a work like Thomas's Christmas memoir, the best thing it's able to remind us all of is the misadventures of Lil' Ralphie Parker growing up on the street and lanes of small town Indiana.  To be even more fair, it's always possible to claim Thomas doesn't exactly help his case in this respect.  It further doesn't help when this is how he chooses to begin remembering the days of Christmas past.

"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. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.

"It was on the afternoon of the day of Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero's garden, waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, although there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slide and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes.  The wise cats never appeared. We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal snows—eternal, ever since Wednesday—that we never heard Mrs. Prothero's first cry from her igloo at the bottom of the garden. Or, if we heard it at all, it was, to us, like the far-off challenge of our enemy and prey, the neighbor's polar cat. But soon the voice grew louder. "Fire!" cried Mrs. Prothero, and she beat the dinner-gong.

"And we ran down the garden, with the snowballs in our arms, towards the house; and smoke, indeed, was pouring out of the dining-room, and the gong was bombilating, and Mrs. Prothero was announcing ruin like a town crier in Pompeii. This was better than all the cats in Wales standing on the wall in a row. We bounded into the house, laden with snowballs, and stopped at the open door of the smoke-filled room.  Something was burning all right; perhaps it was Mr. Prothero, who always slept there after midday dinner with a newspaper over his face. But he was standing in the middle of the room, saying, "A fine Christmas!" and smacking at the smoke with a slipper.  "Call the fire brigade," cried Mrs. Prothero as she beat the gong. "They won't be here," said Mr. Prothero, "it's Christmas."  There was no fire to be seen, only clouds of smoke and Mr. Prothero standing in the middle of them, waving his slipper as though he were conducting.  "Do something," he said.  And we threw all our snowballs into the smoke—I think we missed Mr. Prothero—and ran out of the house to the telephone box.

"Let's call the police as well," Jim said.  "And the ambulance."  "And Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires."  But we only called the fire brigade, and soon the fire engine came and three tall men in helmets brought a hose into the house and Mr. Prothero got out just in time before they turned it on. Nobody could have had a noisier Christmas Eve. And when the firemen turned off the hose and were standing in the wet, smoky room, Jim's Aunt, Miss Prothero, came downstairs and peered in at them. Jim and I waited, very quietly, to hear what she would say to them. She said the right thing, always. She looked at the three tall firemen in their shining helmets, standing among the smoke and cinders and dissolving snowballs, and she said: "Would you like anything to read (web)".

The whole damn thing reads just like the kind of vignette you expect to see waiting for you in Shepherd's memories of his long lost hometown.  Like, it's easy to imagine how Bob Clark might have directed a sequence like this.  It would start out with a relatively stable setup, in what is the ostensible "real world" of Ralphie's memory.  Then one of the neighbors next door would yell out the other four letter F word that won't get your mouth washed out with soap (at least so long as your telling the truth, and not just being an annoying little f/$k about it).  From there, the look and feel of things would begin to make a smooth transition from real to less than true to life.  It would start simple.  Ralphie and his friends would look around, and notice fire coming from a nearby window.  Someone would say something like, "Holy cow, is that your house"?!  Ralphie would freak while the others are all thinking the same thing that one of them finally blurts out loud.  "Cool, let's go see"!  They all run towards our narrator's home, burst inside and are immediately enveloped in smoke.  The only clear sound is Ralph's mother shouting for someone to call the fire department, and some very familiar muffled cursing coming from below in the basement.  Naturally, Ralphie and his friends make a beeline for the ruckus.

We cut to a shot of the basement door opening, plumes of smoke wafting out.  Ralphie and the gang all stand there, at the top of the stairs, framed in the light the doorway.  Cut the the shot where reality transforms into something close to a flesh and blood version of a Warner Bros. cartoon.  Something complete with the image of the Old Man, cussing a mile a minute as he tries to fend off a mutant killer version of the downstairs furnace.  You just know Thomas's words are the kind of thing that a writer like Shepherd would take and then try to blow up to comical epic proportions.  Not only is it the kind of writer he was in real life, it also kind of makes sense to pen such a scene in a way that corresponds to the near twice than life-size way the world and events might appear to a very young boy.  This is an effect that Dylan Thomas is never really interested in, or goes for in his own recounting of this event.

Instead, it's almost as if he finds the truth of life as amusing enough in and of themselves.  He has no need to try and transform the furnace into this hulking, mutant, fire-breathing dragon like a beast out of H.G. Wells in order to get the effect he needs.  Granted, such an idea is awesome and hilarious as hell, and it's a shame we never got a visual treat like that to begin with.  It would have brought the house down if done right.  For all that, however, Thomas remains after a different sort of Yuletide game.  It's the kind where you don't ever need to shout in order to get your point across.  Instead, Dylan uses both his pen and the natural, imagistic lyricism of his own style to give and evoke in his readers that same sense of Childhood that he knew growing up as a boy.  It's fair to say that Thomas's experience of the Holiday was very different from that of Shepherd.  Not just geographically, but also culturally, in some fundamental ways.  Shepherd tends to cast his memories of Christmas with the heightened viewpoint of a child growing up in the 1930s or 40s, and whose major stylistic influence is the Looney Tunes.

Thomas approaches roughly the same experience from the vantage point of a Welsh lad growing up in England somewhere either during or just before the First World War.  It's left up in the air as to whether or not his folks could even afford a radio, much less whether or not the then new media device had made its way into most British households during what was still the early nineteen-hundreds.  It's fair to say that whatever early childhood pastimes the young Dylan might have enjoyed, it didn't include the likes of Little Orphan Annie.  No such prize possession as the infamous Parker "lampstand", either.

Instead, here is the writer describing the kind of gifts he could expect once the Big Day rolled around: "There were the Useful Presents: engulfing mufflers of the old coach days, and mittens made for giant sloths; zebra scarfs of a substance like silky gum that could be tug-o'-warred down to the galoshes; blinding tam-o'-shanters like patchwork tea cozies and bunny-suited busbies and balaclavas for victims of head-shrinking tribes; from aunts who always wore wool next to the skin there were mustached and rasping vests that made you wonder why the aunts had any skin left at all; and once I had a little crocheted nose bag from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying with us. And pictureless books in which small boys, though warned with quotations not to, would skate on Farmer Giles' pond and did and drowned; and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.'

"Go on to the Useless Presents.'  
'Bags of moist and many-colored jelly babies and a folded flag and a false nose and a tram-conductor's cap and a machine that punched tickets and rang a bell; never a catapult; once, by mistake that no one could explain, a little hatchet; 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 colour I pleased, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds. Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Ladders. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions. Oh, easy for Leonardo! And a whistle to make the dogs bark to wake up the old man next door to make him beat on the wall with his stick to shake our picture off the wall. And a packet of cigarettes: you put one in your mouth and you stood at the corner of the street and you waited for hours, in vain, for an old lady to scold you for smoking a cigarette, and then with a smirk you ate it. And then it was breakfast under the balloons (ibid)".

Then there's different ways each author describes their relatives over the course of the Season.  The Parker family and their surroundings seem meant to evoke a combination of the kind of small town Americana found in a Norman Rockwell illustration.  With perhaps just the slightest touch, here and there, of the kind of the humor that would later go on to define National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.  If any of those elements are present, however, the volume is turned way, way down.  Shepherd isn't here to highlight the failures and shortcomings of his parents and their generation the way John Hughes is in the Chevy Chase film.  Instead, it's more about celebrating those memories proper, with just a few hints of good natured ribbing here and there.  Once again, all of this can be found in Dylan Thomas's memoir.  Though the mood still goes off on its own familiar direction.

"Were there Uncles like in our house?'  'There are always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles. And on Christmas morning, with dog-disturbing whistle and sugar fags, I would scour the swatched town for the news of the little world, and find always a dead bird by the Post Office or by the white deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out. Men and women wading or scooping back from chapel, with taproom noses and wind-bussed cheeks, all albinos, huddles their stiff black jarring feathers against the irreligious snow. Mistletoe hung from the gas brackets in all the front parlors; there was sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by the dessertspoons; and cats in their fur-abouts watched the fires; and the high-heaped fire spat, all ready for the chestnuts and the mulling pokers. Some few large men sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost certainly, trying their new cigars, holding them out judiciously at arms' length, returning them to their mouths, coughing, then holding them out again as though waiting for the explosion; and some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edge of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers (ibid)".

Perhaps its now that we begin to get a better sense of the distinction between Thomas and Shepherd. The writer from Wales tends to be a bit more down to Earth than his American Midwest counterpart.  There's plenty of jollity and humor to be had, yet the closest we ever get to the type of occasional slapstick that Shepherd peppers throughout his narrative is the vignette of the Fire at the
Protheros.  Once that's done, however, there really isn't anything else like it.  It's almost as if the writer wanted to get the antics out of the way first before focusing on the real heart of things.  In which case, it sounds very much like Thomas put the Prothero family and their fire hazard misadventures up first in order to help draw the reader into the memories he has to share.  After that, everything tends to remain on a life-size scale.  F
or the most part, at least.  Much like Shepherd, Thomas is willing to add a touch of childhood Romanticism to what he can recall of his pre-teen years.  Unlike the kind of fantasies a kid growing up in the American Heartland during the early 20th century might entertain himself with.  Thomas's reveries and make believe tend to have distinct Old World flavor about them.

"Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: '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 that was not the same snow,' I say. 'Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely -ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards (ibid)".

And now, perhaps not just the difference, but also the real nature of Thomas's memoir starts to become a bit more clear.  None of the author's childhood fantasies are ripped from the pages of the American Pulp Story tradition, Old Time Radio shows, or Saturday Movie Matinees.  Instead, we find Dylan drawing upon the realm of old school folklore for his own entertainment.  Here's where I'm not real sure how American audiences might respond to such a literary mixture.  We've been raised, as a Country, on the Ralph Parker ethos of the Holiday for so long that any deviation from the formula is bound to come off as strange to us.  Perhaps its also telling that while Thomas's memoir of Christmas has achieved national treasure status in Isles, it remains something of an underdog here in the States.  The good news in all this is there really is no cause for estrangement.  Thomas's Holiday fantasies don't include Red Ryder, but instead the world of the Brother's Grimm, and a host of ancient and medieval Welsh and Celtic sagas.  Thomas's childhood fantasies all take place in the settings of Victorian Romanticism.

All of the author's Christmas games and pretending, in other words, came and were drawn from the same Victorian storybook culture as that developed by Edith Nesbit, William Morris, King Arthur, and a host of other bards, minstrels, and tellers of tall tales whose names have been lost to time.  This is what colors the nature of the fantasy elements in Thomas's memoir.  At one point, he even exclaims: "
Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs and the gas meter ticked (ibid)".  It's like Annis Pratts explains.  "In his earliest poems", and even apparently near the very end of his life when this narrative Holiday essay was composed, "Thomas is in terror of the witches, vampires, devils, and damned who formed part of the folk tradition of South Wales".  It's an influence the poet never really seems to have shaken off.  And here, in what amounts to one of his final works, they seem to be brought on to take what amounts to one last, fond curtain call.

It's moments like these that not only tell the difference between American and British Christmas traditions.  They also serve to give Thomas's words their well-blended mixture of fascinating novelty in conjunction with a strange sense of cozy familiarity.  We've been to this setting before countless of times.  Yet now we're being given a chance to see it from a different lens.  It's the same Holiday, a lot of the same customs or Yuletide traditions.  We're just not in the Yankee version of it anymore.  For most of us, the British Christmas tends to stop and start at Charles Dickens Carol.  All Thomas has done is give the reader an opportunity to take this same familiar department store mock-up, and bring it back to life in its own true dimensions.  In doing so, he reveals to us a flesh and blood neighborhood very much like our own, with its families, its parties, and revelry.  Dylan is also kind enough to give the reader a sense of what the pop culture of an older era was like.  By showing how he and his friends relied on old world folklore to play their Christmas games, Thomas grants contemporary readers a window onto how children used to celebrate the Holiday long ago, once upon an actual time.

In fact, the perceptive reader might just be able to take this knowledge a bit further, and realize this means such games and tall tales were most likely never confined to household of either Thomas or his childhood friends.  Instead, it's much more likely that this was a pastime indulged in by children all across the Isles whenever the Yule Time rolled around again.  All of them drew from the same well of folklore for their Holiday fantasies, and some of them, like Thomas, were able to take these old fables and put them to good use later on as literary professionals.  In other words, it doesn't take long to realize sooner or later that someone like J.R.R. Tolkien might have played at either the very same or similar games as Thomas when he was young.  Let that stand as the final demarcation point between Dylan's approach to the Holidays as opposed to that found in A Christmas Story.  The Welsh poet is not content to leave things at the level of either humor or satire.  Instead, his own literary instincts cause him to keep leading things further up, and further in from the mundane world into the very realm of myth.

This also seems to be a very deliberate move on Dylan's part.  And it all goes back to what I said about his being a a Modernist inheritor of the Romantic Movement.  Much as in poems like Fern Hill, Thomas uses his experience of both childhood and Christmas as events with a symbolic significance.  Much like Wordsworth's Prelude, the later Welsh versifier begins to discern these opaque yet vivid moments of time that are, as someone else put it, "pregnant with significance".  The value of such glimpsed timeless moments are things that Wordsworth began to give up on in later life.  A Child's Christmas in Wales, by contrast, was among the next to last things Thomas ever composed before his untimely passing.  Much like Wordsworth's most famous effort, it recalls the sense of thematic splendor, and the depth of the poetic reach and scope of The Prelude.  And it becomes clear that whatever Wordsworth may have ultimately thought, his was a crisis that Thomas either avoided, or else, like Coleridge, was able to overcome.  In many ways, Dylan's Christmas memoir serves as a prose companion piece to Fern Hill.  Each work sees the author reaching back into his childhood in search of a lost sense of significance.  In contrast to Wordsworth, Thomas both finds and is able to keep it.

Examining the finished product as a whole, therefore presents us with a memoir that's also something of an interesting dichotomy.  Much like it's creator, A Child's Christmas in Wales is a text that serves as both inheritance and bridge.  It has one foot firmly planted within the same Romantic Movement as that of Wordsworth and Coleridge.  In a sense, it is able to both honor the legacy of poems like The Prelude, while at the same time giving it the sense of completion that the earlier great work ultimately lacked.  It is this aspect that allows the memoir to have the sense of a long ago promise finally being met, kept, and fulfilled.  At the same time, it's other foot isn't just situated in the future.  It's more that the poet was able to blaze a new trail all of his own with just a simple autobiographical fragment about what a child's life was like during the Holidays.  I can't be certain at all Jean Shepherd has ever read a word of Dylan Thomas.  With that caution noted, however, it is the Wales memoir that has gone on to make nostalgic lookbacks such A Christmas Story possible even in the first place.  Odds are even we wouldn't have the story of Ralphie Parker or a literal Yuletide host of others if not for this one seasonal salvo from one of the key, yet overlooked literary architects of the 1960s.  It is perhaps the most influential Xmas gift.

I'm not sure if this is the same as saying that we wouldn't have gotten to enjoy How the Grinch Stole Christmas without Thomas's efforts.  However, it's a safe bet that guys like John Hughes might not have had as much to draw from when it came to their own memories of the Holiday.  And so it all seems to be owed to this one B side of a Caedmon poetry record.  It was the first Christmas single, and the initial impetus for later efforts in a similar vein.  Taken within the context of the seasonal tradition is seems to have single-handedly helped establish, Dylan's informal essay has to stand as a piece of unheralded pioneer work.  One that set the template for Christmas memories to come.  Taken on its own, the best news of all is that the whole thing is able to work as both a nice piece of childhood nostalgia, as well as perhaps the closest we'll ever get to a final farewell from one of the great poets of the 20th century.

Thomas is able to look back on his boyhood experience of the Holiday with just the right amount of rueful tenderness without ever really succumbing to the kind of later saccharine platitudes that artists like Shepherd and Hughes would go on to both parody and write against.  On that score, Thomas is able to keep his own efforts outside of the target line.  He does this by being willing to both acknowledge and take a glance at some of the less rosier things that can happen to a kid, even at the happiest time of the year.  These include incidents such as running across the remains of that "dead bird by the Post Office or by the white deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out (ibid)".  Or else there's the brief, yet knowing aside about "Auntie Hannah, who liked port", and who, when she got a bit too well into the wine for her own good "stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush (ibid)".  Thomas presents this image with just the right mixture of humor and knowing regret.  He's able to love one of his relatives, while also hinting at personal problems that perhaps should never have been indulged in to begin with, and that might have held her back. 

Then there are the strange hints of darkness hanging about the edges of town.  The kind of thing that can mark a boy's life.  These are the odd bits of life that a child might catch snippets of without ever quite knowing the meaning of right away.  It's not until maturity kicks in that the memory of the event itself begins to hint at either sadder, or darker meanings.  Though even here, the full import of those fleeting glimpses remains a mystery.  "Not many those mornings trod the piling streets: an old man always, fawn-bowlered, yellow-gloved and, at this time of year, with spats of snow, would take his constitutional to the white bowling green and back, as he would take it wet or fire on Christmas Day or Doomsday; sometimes two hale young men, with big pipes blazing, no overcoats and wind blown scarfs, would trudge, unspeaking, down to the forlorn sea, to work up an appetite, to blow away the fumes, who knows, to walk into the waves until nothing of them was left but the two furling smoke clouds of their inextinguishable briars (ibid)".  It's in moments like these where Dylan's prose and description almost begin to match that of James Joyce's recollection of growing up in Dublin.

The difference is that Thomas never carried anywhere near the same amount of hang-ups about his Welsh boyhood as Joyce did about his Irish one.  It's true both authors spent their later years making up with their respective pasts.  Thomas, however, never found all that much reason to look back in anger, the way the creator of Finnegan's Wake did.  Instead, like Springsteen, Thomas notes the darkness on the edge of town, and then is able to breath a sigh of relief.  Because both he and his family managed to never let it touch them all that much.  They were either lucky or blessed, in that sense.  It matters little which terms you used to describe it.  The important part is that unlike Ralph Parker, the clueless Clark Griswold, or even the desperate and confused Stephen Daedalus, Dylan the Younger is able, unlike Wordsworth, to grasp, know, and realize the full value of having a functional childhood, and an equally capable family life that allowed him the time and the space necessary to enjoy it in.  These are all the ways in which A Child's Christmas in Wales is able to set itself apart from the recollections that came both before and after in its artistic wake.  It's a prose poem about the fulfillment of Romantic Promise, all encapsulated at the best possible season of the year.  For these and all of the other reasons excavated above, it wins a well earned recommendation.  It's one of the best works to read for a Merry Christmas. 

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