Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is a poem reflecting Dylan Thomas’s complex attitude toward his father, David John Thomas. The elder Thomas had been a schoolmaster in the grammar school that his son attended and had instilled in the young poet a love for the English of William Shakespeare and the Bible. He had himself written poems in his childhood and seemed to desire to create in his son the poet he had never succeeded in becoming. He had also become the model for the oracular reading voice that Thomas adopted for his own poetry.
That the younger Thomas held his father in high esteem appears clearly in the poem. The adjectives that the poet uses to characterize him are “wise,” “good,” “wild,” and “grave.” The first two are clearly laudatory, although in each case the virtue is mixed with disappointment that it had no wider effect on society. The wildness, however, adds a dimension unseen in the first two qualities: Its influence has somehow interfered with the poetic inspiration that it clearly comprehends. “Wild men” discover they “grieved” the “sun in flight.” This statement is ambiguous; it could mean that the father interfered with the flights of genius in himself or in others, including Dylan. It could also refer to the poet himself, whose wildness led to dissipation responsible for his own manifold problems—by psychological transfer, he may be applying this to his father.
His father’s gravity, however, is hardly characteristic of the son. Although the term suggests dignity worthy of respect, it connotes here a somberness that has been blind to human joy, something the poet had clearly experienced, as many of his poems indicate.
In the final stanza, the poet wants to wring from his father on his “sad height” a curse-blessing, somewhat in the mode of the biblical Jacob as he stole his birthright from Esau. In this case, the curse is the suffering rage the father must experience as he glimpses the glory of what might have been had he fulfilled his own promise; to some degree, he has transferred the rage to his son in the form of insecurity about his own achievement. The blessing is the genius he provided to his son—genius which he had himself fulfilled only vicariously—and supported with his strong sense of language and its power.