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 shown much more to advantage had they been able to live among responsive and appreciative neighbors.
The fourth tercet advises those who perceived and gloried in the light of inspiration and the development of genius in others and in themselves, but whose actions impeded its progress, to defy death. The poet calls them “wild men” because they comprehended the wildness that has long been associated with poets.
Thomas’s last category, grave men who, near death, perceive again too late that they have not expressed their capacity for brightness and lightheartedness in life, must also rage against dying. Even blind eyes, he says, can “blaze like meteors.” In a concluding quatrain, the poet asks his father to reward him and acknowledge his petition by showing the fierce tears of his rage against dying.