Poetry Review, Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night

29 Apr

Bill Brandt Dylan Thomas, 1941


If Dylan Thomas had only ever written this poem, and nothing else, I highly suspect he would still be just as famous.  Do Not go Gentle… is one of the poems that have become public consciousness, one of a tiny percentage of poems that we cannot see because we think we know it already.

So we start with the title line, seemingly written as a general maxim “Do not go gentle into that good night.”   The structure of this poem (a Villanelle if anybody is paying attention) requires this line to repeat several times over, as well as the third line “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  The reason it works so well, and doesn’t come off as repetitive and stodgy is because the situation, a deathbed, aren’t these the kinds of thoughts (though much more articulate) that would echo in someones head when someone they were close to was dying?  Wouldn’t certain lines just repeat over and over like prayer beads, just going round and round?  That’s the thing when someone close to us dies, we feel so completely helpless.

Then Thomas goes through four types of men: wise men, good men, wild men, and grave men.  Wise men don’t pass away gently, they know death is a good thing, but  “because their words forked no lightning,” or to put it another way that because their words did little to change the natural world.

Good men rage against the dying light–Thomas compares good men to a wave that breaks upon a shore, wishing that they could always remain at sea to do more good things.  However their good deeds are frail, they don’t last either.

Wild men who catch the sun–who rush ahead and do wild things, and in rushing ahead learned they used up all their time–they don’t go gently either.

And finally grave men (yes that’s a pun) who see “blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay.”  When I think of someone who is grave, I think of someone who is very very serious, but at the very last minute they have a flash of light and realize that even in terrible illness there can be joy, so they rage against the dying of the light.

The interesting thing (before swinging into the last stanza) is Thomas showing whatever style of life a person leads, there’s a sense of regret at the chosen path, and also a sense that our stories are never truly finished.   Nobody would ever die on purpose if they knew what they were going to.

And the poem turns–he’s talking to his father, and yes this is a prayer, for the father to curse or bless him with his tears, it doesn’t matter, Thomas wants his father to fight death and not merely succumb to it.  Even though there’s no way of winning, it’s what he’s got.

And while I don’t know what death is entirely, I do know that humanity and every living thing clings to life with a tenacity that is brave in a way–in all the places we don’t even consider worth living in, even with hopeless existences that promise very little change, there is an absolute clinging to life, of not letting go of it no matter what, it’s one of the basic rules of existence.

And I understand that–I understand wanting someone, like a marathon runner to keep pushing on, even though there’s no real finish line, and no reward for doing it, because life is precious, and each living person is precious and individual–every one fighting for the next breath.

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