The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
This nineteen-line lyric consists of five tercets (groupings of three lines) and a concluding quatrain (a four-line stanza). Addressed to the poet’s father, it gives him advice about how he ought to die.
In the first tercet, Dylan Thomas tells his father to defy death. After the first line, however, he generalizes about old age, declaring that it should “burn and rave” against dying. This message is contrary to the usual association of a peaceful dying with good character and a virtuous life. Such an association, for example is found in John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (1633), or in Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886).
In the second tercet, the poet begins a series of characterizations of the types of men who rage against death. Here it is wise men who defy death. Their defiance assumes a somewhat ambiguous character: They know that death must come, that indeed, according to the poet, it “is right,” but they have not, in their lives, caused any great stir among humankind (“their words had forked no lightning”). Consequently they must now express that defiance which they previously withheld.
The third tercet deals with good men who cry that their small accomplishments might have shown brilliantly in a more dynamic setting. The poet asserts that they too should rage against death. The last opportunity for finding that setting has passed. The goodness of these men might have...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
This poem is a villanelle, a type of French pastoral lyric not often found in English poetry until the late nineteenth century. It derives from peasant life, originally being a type of round sung on farms, then developed by French poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth century into its present form. For Dylan Thomas, its strictly disciplined rhyme scheme and verse format provided the framework through which he could express both a brilliant character analysis of his father and an ambivalent expression of his love toward him.
In its standardized format, the poem consists of five tercets and a quatrain, rhymed aba, aba, aba, aba, aba, abaa. In addition, the first and third lines of the opening tercet alternate as a refrain to the four following verses and become the last two lines of the concluding quatrain. Such a demanding restriction requires poetic ingenuity to maintain a meaningful expression. Here the form provides the poet with a suitable framework for his four characteristic types—wise, good, wild, and grave men—and enables him to equate these types with his father’s character.
Dylan Thomas’s poetry is consistently rich in imagery and metaphorical language. He seems almost to be an apotheosis of Welsh poetic creativity. The poetic spirit pervades his grammatical and figurative speech. The opening line, which also serves as the title of the work, contains the euphemistic metonymy for death, “that good night”—that...
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Dylan Thomas wrote in such a fiercely personal style about such narrowly personal themes that there is hardly any relationship at all to be found between his poetry and the times in which he lived. Critic Jacob Korg noted in a 1965 study of Thomas's work that "he was occupied with introspections that lie outside of time and place ... his style owes comparatively little to tradition or example." Thomas grew up in a middle-class family, in a seaside town in the south of Wales; his father was the senior English master in the local grammar school; he lived in London during the Second World War; he was a chronic alcoholic, who stole from his friends and lied to them, was loud and offensive in public, and died of poisoning from drinking too much too fast one day. These facts of his life are well known and often repeated, but they can only be found in his poetry—if one looks for them—with a loose imagination.
Like the traditional poetry of Wales, Thomas's work displays two tendencies that might seem to the casual reader to contradict each other: an intuitive, mystical religious sense and a strong controlling hand. Wales, along England's western border, has a traditional poetic form known as the eisteddfod, which was used by druidic cults and in religious worship of nature. It has a strong structure and, like any prose written primarily for recitation and not reading, has a strong, elaborate meter. These facets are not directly...
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Dylan Thomas, partly because of his legendary status as a hard-drinking, wild-living Welshman, is often considered to be a primitive poet, one for whom poems somehow appeared on the page, almost miraculously springing up fully developed out of his passionate nature. In actuality, the contrary is true. Thomas's poetry is very carefully crafted, and he often uses complicated structures.
"Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" is an intricately structured villanelle, made up of five tercets, a unit of three lines of verse, followed by a quatrain, a unit of four lines of verse. The opening line of the poem, the first line in the first stanza, also ends the second and fourth tercets. The third and final line of the first tercet serves as the last line in the third and fifth stanzas. They will also become the last two lines of the quatrain.
The entire rhyme scheme of the poem is built around the words that end the first two lines, "night" and "day." The first and third lines in every stanza rhyme with "night," while every second line rhymes with "day." These words serve as more than just a simple rhyme however; they provide the contrasting images that serve as the poem's core. Thomas also uses internal rhyme to make his poetry flow smoothly, giving it a melodic quality. The poet's use of alliteration, with its repeated initial sounds, can be seen in the words "go" and "good" in the first line, and "blind" and "blaze" in line 14. The words "caught"...
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Compare and Contrast
1946: The postwar demand for consumer goods gave workers the edge in bargaining for wages: 4.6 million workers held strikes against the manufacturers they worked for, including Westinghouse, General Motors, the meat packers, and the railroads.
1981: 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike and were fired by President Ronald Reagan, marking the start of a new era of pro-employer "union-busting."
Today: Labor unions have the lowest membership since the 1940s and, in many cases, have little effect on wages and benefits being offered.
1947: The first casino was built in Las Vegas, Nevada—the only state to allow legalized gambling.
1978: Atlantic City, New Jersey, legalized casino gambling in order to bring in tax revenues.
Today: Most states have some form of legalized casino gambling.
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Topics for Further Study
Is there another group, beside the old and dying, that you think should "rage"? Write a poem to stir up their emotions.
Try writing a villanelle about advice you would like to give to your parents. Start with two lines that express your main idea independently of one another and then follow Thomas' structure.
Give some examples of public figures who are wise men, good men, wild men, and brave men. Give examples of wise women, good women, wild women, and brave women. Explain how they fit into what the poem has to say.
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An audio cassette read by Thomas and others called "In Country Heaven—Evolution" is available from Harper Collins Audio.
"Return Journey to Swansea," and audio cassette read by Thomas, is available from Harper Collins Audio.
Dylan Thomas: A Portrait, is a video cassette from Films for the Humanities and Sciences.
A video cassette narrated by Thomas titled A Dylan Thomas Memoir was released by Pyramid Film and Video in 1972.
Dylan Thomas: Return Journey was released on video cassette by Direct Cinema Limited in 1991.
Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood is available on video cassette from Films for the Humanities and Sciences.
The Wales of Dylan Thomas is available on video cassette from Films for the Humanities and Sciences.
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What Do I Read Next?
The best of Thomas's poetic works can be found in his Collected Poems, published in 1971.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog and Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Stories are Thomas's two works of fiction, which draw more from his chaotic life than does his poetry.
Ralph Maud, a very keen-eyed and easy to read literary critic, published Entrances to Dylan Thomas' Poetry in 1963. The book gives the general reader a good start at understanding the poems, stories, and plays as well as Thomas himself, focusing on the creative works.
In The Denial of Death, psychologist Ernest Becker explains human behavior in terms of fear of death. The narrator of this poem would be seen in Becker's analysis as being panicked when faced with a death so close to his life.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Emery, Clark, The World of Dylan Thomas, Coral Gables: University of Miami, 1962.
Gaston, Georg, Critical Essays on Dylan Thomas, Boston: G.K. Hall, 1989.
Kidder, Rushworth M., in his Dylan Thomas: The Country of the Spirit, Princeton University Press, 1973, p. 234.
Korg, Jacob, Dylan Thomas, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1965.
Thomas, Dylan, Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters, edited by Paul Ferris, New York: Macmillan, 1985.
Thomas, Dylan, Dylan Thomas: The Poems, edited by Daniel Jones, editor, London: J.M. Dent, 1971.
For Further Study
Cox, C.B., editor, Dylan Thomas: A Collection of Essays, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1966.
Contains several critical essays written while Thomas was still alive or soon after his death, including poet Karl Shapiro's reflections on Thomas's place in our culture from a perspective of a peer who knew him. Also particularly significant is John Ackerman's "The Welsh Background," which highlights some thin social strains that can be found in Thomas's work.
Moynihan, William, The Craft and Art of Dylan Thomas, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.
A very detailed analysis focused closely on Thomas's writing in the order that it was published and the theoretical basis behind each work.
Tindall, William York, A Reader's...
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