Dylan Thomas, Reading (Vol. 1)

Album of the Week, December 30, 2023

It’s the shoulder season of the year, when the Christmas trees are still up but everyone has been Whamageddoned, most of the leftovers from the holiday meal have been eaten, and one could be forgiven for yearning for something to listen to that’s not holiday music. Time for something different, and this record, while still seasonally appropriate, certainly fits the bill.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas might be best remembered (rightly so) for “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” but it is his story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” that links today’s record with our holiday theme. And what a story it is, especially read in Thomas’s Welsh baritone. The record at hand, Reading Vol. 1, was originally released in 1952, a year before the poet’s death at age 39 from an undiagnosed bronchial infection, complicated by his heavy drinking.

Reading (Vol. 1) is significant in a few other ways. First, it was recorded during the poet’s second American tour, which established his reputation as a poet and as an unpredictably drunken performer. Second, it was the first recording on a new record label. Named after the oldest known English poet, Caedmon Records was founded on a shoestring budget by Barbara Holdridge and Marianne (Roney) Mantell, when both were two years out of Hunter College. They approached Thomas while he was on tour, and convinced him to record his poems.

Thomas recorded five of his best known poems for the record. Different versions have different running orders, but in my copy (released in 1958), the first poem to appear is “Fern Hill.” Written in 1945 as a memory of a farm Thomas visited when a boy, the poem features an unusual nine-line stanza with internal slanted rhyme, and mourns the poet’s inability to escape the passing of time: “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,/Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

The second poem on the record is “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Probably the most famous villanelle in the English language, Thomas’s fierce address to a dying man, named in the last stanza as his father, has been interpreted both literally and metaphorically over the years as an ode and exhortation to everything from dying relatives to endangered democratic ideals. Thomas’s reading here is both mellifluous and brief, but no less devastating for the brevity.

Less familiar is “In the white giant’s thigh,” which is differently devastating, as the poet’s memory of the carnal, physical joys of better times (summer? Youth?) contrasts with the stark reality of the (cold, aged) present: “And the mole snout blunt under his pilgrimage of domes,/Or, butter fat goosegirls, bounced in a gambo bed,/Their breasts full of honey, under their gander king/Trounced by his wings in the hissing shippen, long dead/And gone that barley dark where their clogs danced in the spring…” The pure pleasure of the language itself holds the dusty fate of the goosegirls at bay; these are no dead thoughts.

The Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait” is the longest poem on the record, and the second longest work after “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” An epic ode to a fisherman who now seems stranded on dry land, the poem both celebrates the wild hunt of the fisherman at the sea and mourns his stranding on land, which not only domesticates him but somehow plants the sea itself with crops: “Good-bye, good luck, struck the sun and the moon,/To the fisherman lost on the land./He stands alone in the door of his home,/With his long-legged heart in his hand.”

The final poem on the record, “Ceremony After a Fire Raid,” continues in the bleak mood of the other tracks, but here at last there is an apocalypse, as the land is scoured clean after the wreckage of the bombing incendiary damage of the air raid: “The masses of the infant-bearing sea/Erupt, fountain, and enter to utter for ever/Glory glory glory.”

Thomas could be apocalyptic when the mood took him, which is why the irony stands that the first part of the album, with his wryly observed portrait of childhood, recorded only to fill the album, is the best-known recording on the album. I deliberately saved the first track for last, as “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” was not only recorded last, it was added as an afterthought. After recording the five poems above, Thomas was told that they needed more material to fill the album, and he suggested this story, originally published in Harper’s Bazaar and redacted together from a radio broadcast he wrote for the BBC and a 1947 essay written for Picture Post Magazine. The resulting work is delightfully episodic, with the unforgettable episode of the burned Christmas dinner at the Protheros leading off—the dialog between the narrator and young Jim Prothero stands as an economical masterpiece of wry comedy. (Sent to call the fire brigade, they say, “Let’s call the police as well…” “And the ambulance.” “And Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires.”) There follows the exhausted and stuffed uncles, the tipsy aunts, the caroling to the haunted house. The whole thing is a closely observed piece of brilliance, a celebration of the delights of festival excess and idle childhood free-range play.

Little wonder that “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” led to the establishment of Caedmon Records as a successful enterprise. The new label went on to record many great midcentury poets and to pave the way for later audio innovations—audiobooks, anyone? We’ll hear more from Caedmon another time. Next week, though, we’ll dive into a different journey.

You can listen to the album here:


I have real trouble passing a good bookstore. Days like yesterday are why.

I didn’t start out the day intending to visit the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, and certainly didn’t want to get champagne there. But Esta and I were parked nearby and it seemed a shame not to go in.

I only made one full circuit of the store, but during that circuit I found first editions of the following:

  • Ray Bradbury’s Toynbee Convector (1988), which he published when I was in high school but which I’ve never read
  • Porte Crayon‘s The Old South Illustrated (1959), the first major collection of his published works, including Virginia Illustrated and first appearance of the “typical 1850s UVA student” drawing that the Virginia Glee Club has used for years
  • And Countee Cullen‘s Copper Sun (1927), pictured above, his third published book.

The Cullen is a beautiful work, illustrated in an art deco inspired style by the unrelated Charles Cullen, and featuring some of Countee Cullen’s most shattering poems, including “Threnody for a Brown Girl.” A Google search shows that first editions can go for north of $300; I got very lucky to find it for less than a tenth of that.

Pacem, pacem, shantih

It’s been four years since I last sang at Carnegie Hall, and Tuesday I’ll be there again, performing the Beethoven Missa Solemnis with the Boston Symphony, under the direction of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus’s John Oliver. It’s been an interesting run, for a host of reasons that have little to do with the music and everything to do with the musicians.

But one thing about it that’s particularly interesting to me is that I find myself still trying to figure out this work. Even though it was the first major work I sang with a symphonic chorus, eighteen years ago. Even though I sang it once more with Robert Shaw fourteen years ago.

It shouldn’t surprise me how much there is to learn about this work. Beethoven wrote it at the height of his powers, and close to the end of his life, at the same time he was composing the Ninth Symphony. I think it’s equally as great a work as the Ninth, but more difficult to approach. Because where the Ninth resolves eternal conflict through the relatively accessible lens of joy and brotherhood, the Missa doesn’t really resolve the conflict at all, and uses religion as the lens through which the conflict is examined.

The movement I’ve been fixated on is the “Agnus Dei.” It’s the last movement of the piece, and as Maestro Oliver points out, it’s unique in that it’s a classical composition–as in, big C classical, partaking much more of Mozart or Haydn than does the rest of the work. It’s very structured, relatively formal, and can seem either light hearted or too mannered if you approach it in the wrong way.

I’m coming at the piece through a gout attack–the first one I’ve had in several years, only the second major one I’ve had–and I think I understand it a little better. I see the “Agnus Dei” as Beethoven trying to come to terms with what was happening to him at the end of his life–his total deafness, his approaching mortality. There are shifting tones in it of fear and of utter desolation. (Which also became clear to me for the first time on this concert run, when we sang the “Miserere” section after hearing Maestro Kurt Masur’s announcement that he could not conduct and his quiet confession that the Missa was too much and that he would never conduct it again.) And I certainly feel an echo of that in my frustration in being unable to stand without pain, or at the worst even to have something touch my foot.

But then comes the “Dona Nobis Pacem.” And where in Berlioz or other masses it’s a cry for help, there’s something quietly assured about the way Beethoven sets this text. It’s a fugue in a major key that keeps returning even over outbreaks of “Miserere.” Done lightly or thoughtlessly, the contrast is jarring. Done in the spirit of the thing, it is meditation, a plea for self control.

It reminds me of The Waste Land, actually. As Eliot’s associative madness pulls in imagery from Hieronymo to bats to women fiddling on their hair, the poet reaches for “Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata.”–“give, sympathize, control”–and then “Shantih, shantih, shantih.” A mantra in the strictly correct sense of the word. And while it’s debatable whether Eliot truly achieves “the peace that passeth all understanding” even by the end of the work, it’s pretty clear that Beethoven’s “pacem, pacem” performs the same function for him. It’s a reaching of acceptance of all that is in life, an acknowledgement of peace and its power.

And it will be very hard to convey that in performance. But now that I know that it’s there, maybe I can try to make it happen.