Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night Essays and Criticism
by Dylan Thomas

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A Plea to the Dying

(Poetry for Students)

While Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" could be addressed to anyone, by the end of the last stanza, the reader realizes that the specific addressee is Thomas's sick father. In this poem he never sent, the son entreats his father not to accept death quietly, but instead, to fight it. While the more usual-sentiment counsels accepting death peacefully and gracefully, something more provocative is at work here: that is, though death is a "good night" in its romantic or hopeful sense of restful bedtime and peaceful darkness, one should not accept it, and instead "rage" against this "dying of the light." Perhaps it is this contradiction, unreconciled, that gives this poem its power, its ability to paralyze rational overcoming and obstruct the desire to make polarities meet at some middle ground. This poem says that death is good and that one should rage against it. Perhaps we should be skeptical and ask: Why rage against what is, what is good, what cannot be avoided, in other words, why fight death?

In "Do Not Go Gentle," every first and third line of the five three-lined "tercets" and first, third, and fourth lines of the final four-lined "quatrain" end-rhyme with "night" or "light" (aba or abaa). This scheme characterizes the villanelle (derived from the Italian villan, meaning "peasant"), a form that comes from sixteenth-century peasant songs. Poets usually employed the villanelle for light or bucolic subjects, a kind of peacefully rural poem or "pastoral." "Do Not Go Gentle" is one of the most famous examples of this rather uncommon form and for at least the following reason: the poem does not preach calm, as might be expected, but rage, rage against death, that event often equated with Nature as an ultimate physical force. This is not a villanelle expressing the pleasure of nature's cycles and seasons, a balanced acceptance of births and deaths, but a raging against what is, an acknowledgment that a life within nature—as all lives subject to life and death must be—is not just harmoniously repetitive but also full of sudden pain and occasional grieving. Perhaps this is one reason for Thomas's euphemism, "good night," an expression minimizing death, that event which apparently is too painful for Thomas to mention.

Day and night or light and dark are long-standing metaphors for life and death, and while Thomas merely adopts the tradition, he also breathes new life into it. The four middle tercets describe the acts of four kinds of men—"wise," "good," "wild," and "grave"—employing words associated with light and dark. In the second tercet, the words of wise men "forked no lightning," presumably in the darkness of the foolish. In the third tercet, the deeds of the last tide of good men were not "bright" enough to "dance" (sparkle) on the "green bay," or what might here be thought of here—since the water is green instead of blue—as the darker, more dangerous world. The wild men of the fourth tercet "who caught and sang the sun in flight," only "grieved it on its way," that is, made matters worse, perhaps by being partially blind to the darker side of human wildness. Finally, in the fifth tercet, grave men near death, despite their "blinding sight," that is, their presumed ability to see more clearly because they are dying, can "blaze like meteors and be gay," being gay or happy as itself as a state of lightness.

Though, while living, these four types of enlightened men or people—the wise, good, wild, and grave—failed to lighten the dark world they lived in, at times even unwittingly darkened it with their brave and clear vision, or obscured its misery with their overly bright outlook, they must not fail to blaze and rage against the darkness of death. They must rebel against "the dying of the light" and "close of day" no matter what the role light played in their life. In this sense, Thomas asks us to see rage as a kind of beam of light shooting through the darkness of death, light which refuses...

(The entire section is 3,196 words.)