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the close and holy darkness

December 25, 2012

First published in the year of my birth, a year after the the poets tragic early death, Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales is classified as a prose work but it is more than that.  It contains many wonderful examples of Thomas's evocative phrasing.  When he sings (for all his poetry is a song, and so is his prose) about church bells we get: in the bat-black, snow-white belfries tugged by bishops and storks.  And they rang their tidings over the bandaged town, over the frozen foam of the power and ice-cream hills, over the crackling sea. The multiple layered imagery and association is described by the critics as a patterned sequence of images that show the unity of all things and just for once critical language augments our understanding.

The images he draws on will be familiar to anyone who grew up in Wales during the first half the last century. More especially if you were part of that intermingling of the respectable working class and newly emerging educated middle class that was so characteristic of South Wales in that period.  They intermingle the Bible with part remembered stories from the Mabinogion, from which the name Dylan was derived.  Fortunately the BBC ensured that Thomas recorded the story before he died and that is still available.  If you haven't heard Thomas recite his poems then you are missing a whole new dimension of understanding.  Richard Burton achieves the same result in the famous recording of Under Milk Wood, but then he comes from the same tradition, the same Cynefin.

I'm listening to the recording of Thomas with tears emergent, while writing this; it is not prose, its a poem.  It interweaves memories and imagination to create a common shared culture.  Lets take another extract to make the point:

Years and years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and the birds the colour 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 parlours and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the moron-car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.

Just look at the levels of meaning in that small passage, time reverses through images of transport, the sexual imagery around the colour of the birds, even the hills are commissioned into the shape of the national instrument so there is now question of place, but much of meaning.

If there is one thing I want read, and which I want to have lived, at my funeral it is Thomas's famous tribute to this father's dead Do not go gentle into that good night.  But maybe the passage above to balance it.  With Thomas you always know that you sit in flow of past imaginations and future potentialities that go beyond the individual, but are protected and authenticated by memories: Cynefin.

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