What the heck is a tiger egg?
Well, once, in an interview, Dylan Thomas said of himself (as a younger poet):
I wrote endless imitations, though I never thought them to be imitations, but rather wonderfully original things, like eggs laid by tigers.
Those tiger eggs might not be so well known, but A Child’s Christmas in Wales most certainly is; it has traveled around the world many times over, and is one of the most beloved of all literary evocations of Christmastime. In it, a man of uncertain age tells some small children gathered at his side of what Christmas was like when he was a boy … and in so doing captures the most wonderful kind of magic that human memory can make, bringing to life an idealized Yuletide landscape, fashioned with the kind of reckless joy of language and humanity that defined Dylan Thomas. It is at once so very particular to a seaside town in Wales and so amazingly universal (which explains its perpetual popularity).
On this new record, the many-hatted Welsh star Cerys Matthews and her longtime musical compadre Mason Neely (of Tennessee) have put music to a reading of A Child’s Christmas. It was apparently a dream of Cerys’s since hearing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf to similarly hear this special work by Dylan Thomas “dance with music,” and it has been brought to fruition in rather fine and fully-orchestrated style here in 2014, which also happens to be the centenary of Dylan Thomas’s birth.
Yet, that’s only half of this album (a 2-CD set if you buy it the old-fashioned way). The second disc contains readings of poems and some of those aforementioned tiger eggs, also accompanied by music (more simply conceived and performed) composed by Cerys Matthews and Mason Neely. The general inclination might be to focus on the “Christmas” part and to treat these other works as extras, but I think that would be to give short shrift to what the respective artists have pulled off here. So let’s begin instead with a smattering of les poèmes and les œufs.
And that requires a note on this notion of reading Dylan Thomas in the first place. Even if one is only a mild fan of the poet, one is likely aware that some voluminous recordings exist of him reading his own work, made during one of his visits to New York City (he died there in 1953 at the tragically young age of 39). It’s a wonderful thing that these recordings exist, and Thomas reads his work in his great, sonorous voice, projecting it into the ether, more like a Caruso than a Sinatra. But, perhaps as Cole Porter was not the greatest interpreter of his own songs, Thomas’s readings need not be considered as anything like the final word on hearing his work read aloud. For one thing, although Welsh, he didn’t sound terribly Welsh in these recordings: he had a rather formal, educated, anglicized tone (and indeed like many of his contemporaries he was not a Welsh speaker). There’s nothing wrong with that—he was who he was, but it’s certainly arguable that his poetry comes with broader textures and sounds than he may have been fully qualified to personally voice at the time. Cerys Matthews’ approach to reading his words is to speak them naturally, with nuance and feeling and a very healthy dose of her own indisputable Welshness. It works: it’s refreshing, lively and entertaining, as poetry has every right to be (especially Dylan Thomas’s).
Poems and Tiger Eggs kicks off with an extract from Thomas’s play-intended-for-radio, Under Milk Wood, this a vignette titled “Mr. and Mrs Cherry Owen,” which finds the couple in the morning sitting down “to last night’s supper of onions boiled in their overcoats and broth of spuds and baconrind and leeks and bones.” The disarray is due to Mr. Owen’s arrival home the night before after a long evening in the pub, “drunk as a deacon” and ranting. He cannot remember all he said and did the night before, but Mrs. Owen proceeds to remind him of it; rather than excoriating him, however, she tells the story as if reciting glorious and heroic exploits. It’s a truly wonderful piece of writing, and, although intended for two voices, Cerys puts it over with all of the required feeling and delight and no strain. The simple guitar and bass melody in the background propels it nicely without distracting.
“Being But Men” is—we must suppose—a tiger egg, being a poem that Thomas wrote when he was only 17, and one that did not make the cut on his own personal Collected Poems from 1952 but one that is available in the later and (likely) superior collection The Poems of Dylan Thomas, edited by Daniel Jones. This poem makes for a very accessible window into themes that stayed with Dylan Thomas, like the wonder of creation and the avenue to seeing it that youth seems to provide. A mesmeric vibraphone melody accompanies Cerys’s affectionate and affecting reading.
“Fern Hill” is one of Dylan Thomas’s greatest poems and one of those few that likely require even those who may not be “fans” to concede him a place amongst the Great Poets. And here the subject of reading Dylan Thomas aloud becomes most relevant, I think, because to feel the greatness of this poem you really must read it out loud. It has a thrilling sweep and a cathartic momentum that can be physically experienced in so doing. You’ll know you’re reading it right, in my opinion, if you end up breathless at the final lines. Analyzing the poem then becomes pointless, as you’ll have felt it. But the most succinct analysis might just be to say that it is a poem about everything (from the very first dawn to one’s present beating heart). Cerys does it her own kind of justice, pronouncing the lines above a soft, lilting and Celtic-kind-of tune.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
And therein lies a real gift of this album: it is inviting the listener to read these poems for him- or her-self.
Since there is Christmas to attend to and space is so limited, we can’t go over each and every poem and tiger egg here, but this rich collection ends with the one sung piece on the album, “The Reverend Eli Jenkins’ Prayer,” (actually previously noted in this space). It is another scene from Under Milk Wood, and the performance of these words makes for a perfect, peaceful and poignant finish, evoking the love of man and praise of God to which Dylan Thomas, after all, dedicated his work (in the introduction to his Collected Poems).
A Child’s Christmas here is subtitled “An adventure with Orchestra” and it qualifies as that, brought into being with full string, brass and wind sections. There are apparently plans already afoot for a ballet incarnation.
Yours truly first read A Child’s Christmas in Wales as a schoolboy (in Ireland, as it happens), and it sealed an affection for Dylan Thomas that survived even trying and failing some years later to get a handle on his poetic work as a whole. It just seemed to me that anyone who could write A Child’s Christmas had to be fundamentally a good sort, whatever about the rest of it. It is classified as one of his prose works, but is as supremely unprosaic a work of prose as one can encounter.
There’s a quirk in the structure of the story, in that it has a kind of false start before settling into its overall shape. It begins with general musings on Christmases of childhood and the way memories merge (“all the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea”) and then plucks one seemingly at random, involving ambushing the town cats with snowballs (“sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered … they would slink and sidle over the white back-garden walls”) followed by a fire in the house of Mr. and Mrs. Prothero, told with near-slap-stick humor. And then Jim’s aunt, Miss Prothero, who “said the right thing, always,” descends the stairs to the scene of destruction and says that very right thing. The music matches and emphasizes the moods, dream-like at the beginning, faux-dramatic for the cat-hunting, and wild for the scene of the Prothero fire.
And then, the story begins. That is, it begins again, and the context becomes the narrator speaking to some small children, and there is that peerless opening sentence:
Years and 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.
Here on first listening I was surprised by the musical treatment, because I would have gone with boisterousness, as befitting the humor in those words, yet Matthews and Neely bring it down, meditative, in a minor key, with piano followed by lovely harp from celebrated player Catrin Finch. Then, after a couple of listens, I realized that they were right. If you’re going to use a meditative or somewhat sad tone at all in A Child’s Christmas, then this is nearly the only spot to do it in. So the music, along with the gentler reading from Cerys, brings out what you can otherwise miss in the words on the page: The miracle of childhood memory (inextricably fired with imagination) is wonderful, but if you are sitting down and remembering in this way, surrounded by small children, it also means that you yourself are now older, and though you are recalling that wonder, you can never experience it again in quite the same way. There is then just a note of melancholy between the lines, and this performance ensures the listener doesn’t miss that.
From there, all bets are off, and Dylan Thomas’s story motors along with all the gorgeous language and life that has justly made it famous. The music throughout this recording is like a very carefully composed film score, with sweeping themes segueing into more nuanced segments and incidental twists and turns. There are few musical colors on the palette left unutilized. (At a certain point the theme for “The Useful, and the Useless Presents” sounds like it comes straight from a very grand old John Wayne western, though one I can’t place.) Cerys’s reading has all the gusto and unfakeable love of language that is required to bring the work alive (and again is a reminder to the listener that reading this work is where the greatest pleasure in it lies). A brief but fairly shining example has been posted on YouTube and is embedded below, the vignette titled “Hippos,” wherein the narrator and a few of his friends have left their houses on Christmas afternoon, “to pad through the still streets, leaving huge deep footprints on the hidden pavements.”
In the end, what Ms. Matthews and Mr. Neely have provided here is a new way of enjoying an ageless work of literature, and a new way of introducing it to the uninitiated. At Christmas or any other time, that’s a rather lovely gift.
Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed.
Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.
To find the CD package with its notes and bonus tracks (instrumental themes) and everything, you would go to this link: A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs.