Death & Poetry Part 2: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

(Note: this is the second post about Poetry and Death based on a research project that I recently finished for my Medical Humanities class in Fall 2016. This post analyzes “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas and attempts to highlight how this poem enables readers to cope with death. I hope that you will find this post interesting and thought provoking.)

Thomas writes “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” from the perspective of a son speaking to his dying father. He implores his father to vigorously fight despair at the end of life. In other words the speaker is “advocating active resistance to death immediately before death, not sad mourning after it” (Westphal 113). Thomas seems to believe that those who fail to resist death helplessly welcome despair and mourning. This poem describes death as an enemy and encourages a posture of animosity towards death.

The situation that Thomas speaks into is both serious and common. After all, “it is inconceivable for our unconscious to imagine an actual ending of our own life here on earth, and if the life of ours has to end, the ending is always attributed to a malicious intervention from the outside by someone else. In simple terms, in our unconscious mind we can only be killed; it is inconceivable to die of a natural cause or of old age” (Kübler-Ross 2). Given the psychological struggle that mankind has with dying in this particular way, Thomas’ words bear even more weight.

Thomas begins this poem with the famous phrase, “Do not go gentle into that good night” (Line 1). Through this line, Thomas urges his father (and his readers) to not bear of a posture of complacency and acceptance but to struggle in the face of death. He interestingly describes death as a “good night,” which stands paradoxically in contrast with his urges to “not go gentle.” Thomas continues, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Lines 2-3). Just because an individual is old does not mean that person’s life should be any less passionate or vigorous than before, Thomas says. Life should always flourish, but death brings an end to this flourishing, and therefore, because it is unnatural in this sense, death should be resisted.

Further accentuating this unpleasantness, death in the modern era has characteristics that make it “more gruesome in many ways, namely, more lonely […] because the patient is often taken out of his familiar environment” (Kübler-Ross 7). Even surrounded by family death is inherently lonely because it cannot be experienced collectively. The brutality of death becomes exponentially more apparent once we realize that each of us must face death alone.

Based upon the reality of death’s ruthlessness, Thomas continues his exhortation of his father, “Though wise men at their end know dark is right, / Because their words had forked no lightning they / Do not go gentle into that good night” (Lines 4-6). These lines use some peculiar imagery and their meaning is by no means obvious. However, it appears that the speaker is noting that the wise acknowledge the imminence of death when he writes that they “at their end know dark is right.” Despite this knowledge, the wise still do not complacently go towards death; rather, their understanding enables them to resist death all the more.

Continuing with the descriptive imagery Thomas says, “Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright / Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, / Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Lines 7-9). The speaker singles out another group of people, “good men,” and say that they know that their lives could have been significant and beautiful if not cut short. For this reason he urges them to rage against the ending of life.

Life is short. Thomas notes, “Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, / And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, / Do not go gentle into that good night” (Lines 10-12). Using the metaphor of the sun, the speaker describes how men, in the same instant that they celebrate life, also mourn death. Because of the natural brevity of life, death should be resisted.

As he continues, Thomas presents his father with an example of what life at the end could look like. He writes, “Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight / Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, / Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Lines 13-15). Even those with “blinding sight” (presumably the elderly) have the opportunity to “blaze like meteors and be gay.” Age is no excuse to give in to death and those who resist death have the opportunity to use their last moments productively.

Thomas follows up this example with a final exhortation to resist complacency at the end of life. He implores, “And you, my father, there on the sad height, / Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. / Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Lines 16-19). In the face of death, the son begs his father for any sort of action. The giving of a blessing or even of a curse would be better than doing nothing. Thomas knows that all life deserves good stewardship and begs his father to seek to use his time well, even at the end of life.

Through the structure of this poem, Thomas further accentuates these themes. If one were to read this poem out loud, the listeners would likely notice the disjointed rhythm that these lines display. The pace of this poem does not resolve the way listeners might like, which mirrors the point that life rarely ends the way individuals would like. Considering that most of the lines are in groups of three, this poem’s rhyme is fairly unpredictable. This structural decision emphasizes that death is unpredictable and seldom behaves the way that we might like it to behave. These mechanical decisions highlight the ways that poetry can communicate uniquely and effectively, and the way that Thomas applied them to this subject matter.

In summary Thomas instructs his readers to deal with death by fighting it to the very end. In the face of death’s inevitability, Thomas commends attempting to make best possible use of every moment of life. A subtler theme in this poem is the idea that “death often brings with it a profound gratitude for life” (Burch 1896). Thomas emphasizes that, because it is the end of life, death often creates a sense of regret, or at least recognition of life’s true value and potential. It is also interesting to reemphasize that this poem is written from the perspective of a son to his father. This poem is not written by someone in the process of dying but rather by someone who is experience the secondary effects of death. But this fact serves as a reminder that death’s greatest negative effects are often on those left behind. As noted earlier, death creates isolation and “the real terror in death, for those dying as for those left behind, is the loneliness of it” (Burch 1896).

 

For further reading, check out the following sources:

Burch, Druin. “On Death.” Lancet 360.9348 (2002): 1896. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Westphal, Jonathan. “Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Explicator 52.2 (1994): 113. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

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I hope you found this post to be informative and relevant. Please leave your thoughts in a comment below or send them to me via email. And again, thanks for reading!

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