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...
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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 death's pacification or darkening. Such a light yields a vision which exposes death in the way Thomas comprehends it: the ultimate horror. Therefore, Thomas counsels his father to make the ultimate refusal by refusing the ultimate, urges his father toward futile rebellion against what is and cannot be stopped. One may ask themselves whether or not the horror attached to death is primarily natural and therefore unavoidable (as Thomas seems to believe), or whether the horror of death arises from particular cultural viewpoints of death as horrible.
Thomas called his poems "statements on the way to the grave" and "two sides of an unresolved argument," both comments relevant to "Do Not Go Gentle." Compare his "I See the Boys of Summer" where an older father figure condemns young boys as possessing that kind of death in life known as destructive energy, and the boys defend themselves with, "But seasons must be challenged or they totter." In "Do Not Go Gentle," however, the son internalizes the father, counseling him to take hold of youth's destructive energy and turn it against the ultimate destroyer, death. See also the dialogue in Thomas's "Find Meat on Bones" between father and son where this time, in reverse direction from "Do Not Go Gentle," the father urges the son to "Rebel against the ... Autocracy of night and day / Dictatorship of sun /... against the flesh and bone." Far more obvious here is the coupling of Death and Nature already mentioned in the second paragraph above. In "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, By Fire, of a Child in London," Thomas maintains that saying nothing (eloquently) is the only thing which can be said in the aftermath of death. While silence must succeed death in "Refusal," raging must precede it in "Do Not Go Gentle." In "Fern Hill," Thomas remarks on the death resting latent within youthful invulnerability, the opposite of a kind of immature raging or tantrum in the face of "Do Not Go Gentle's" "dying of the light." And finally refer to his "Elegy," an unfinished poem by Thomas written after his father's death and completed after his own death from notes he left behind. Unlike what Thomas had pleaded that his father do in the face of imminent death, in "Elegy," Thomas's father remained what he always was: "kind" and "brave" and "too proud to cry."
If "kind," "brave" and "proud" describe Thomas's father in "Elegy," was the man also "wise," "good," "wild," and "grave," adjectives used for men in "Do Not Go Gentle"? Was the father all of these? None of them? While this cannot be accurately answered with evidence found in the poem, it might be that adjectives found in "Elegy," coupled with some theorizing on the word, "gentle," of "Do Not Go Gentle," can provide a clue. Notice that Thomas substitutes the less grammatically correct part of speech, the adjective, "gentle," in place of the more correct and usual adverbial form, "gently." Why? Perhaps because as an adjective, "gentle" can be used to describe Thomas's "kind" father, could even be an epithet for him. So when Thomas says, "Do not go gentle into that good night," a translation might be, "Do not go, gentle father, into that final goodbye," or "Do not die father, do not accept death." In the end, if wise, good, wild, and grave men rage against death, so should gentle men.
But for whose benefit is this advice given? Is it for Dylan Thomas's father or Thomas himself, the latter who seems unable to tolerate the idea of his father dying? If we answer that the advice is offered more for the benefit of Thomas himself than for his father, this being part of the reason Thomas never sent the poem to his father, then "Do Not Go Gentle" becomes less a poem of defiance than a poem of paralysis and pain. With this in mind, perhaps an answer to the question that began our discussion of "Do Not Go Gentle" can now be ventured. The question was, Why rage against what is, is good, what cannot be avoided, in other words, death? The answer, Thomas seems to imply with the words, "bless me" in the final stanza, is that raging against death, while also, as Thomas says, a "curse" for friends and relatives to endure, is more importantly a blessing on those left behind, on those not wanting the dying to leave them. For this reason: by raging "against the dying of the light," by struggling against death, the dying demonstrate—or so the living would like to believe—their love of those who will be left behind. Perhaps more than anything, this is the kind of demonstration Thomas wanted so desperately from his father.
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997. Jhan Hochman is a freelance writer and currently teaches at Portland Community College, Portland, OR.
"Do not go gentle into that good night" is perhaps too often considered lightly as only simple iteration. Cid Corman even believes that "the set form of the villanelle treads Thomas's feet." By definition the villanelle is restrictive, because it demands nineteen lines on two rhymes in six stanzas, the first and third lines of the opening tercet recurring alternately at the end of the other tercets, both being repeated at the end of the concluding quatrain. Within this structure, however, Thomas creates a poem of great force, beauty, and tenderness, in which sound and sense are exquisitely blended.
Thomas's villanelle is a plea to his ill and aging father to die as wise men, good men, wild men, grave men die and as the father himself has lived—struggling, "[raging] against the dying of the light". The structure of the poem involves two uses of the repeated lines with some functional change. In the opening stanza, "Do not go gentle into that good night" and "Rage, rage against the dying of the light" are imperatives directed to an unidentified person. In the next four stanzas one or the other of these repeated phrases forms the predicate to statements about, respectively, wise men, good men, wild men, and grave men. In the concluding stanza, the poet directly addresses his father, and the repeated lines thus become significant imperatives—first the negative command to his father, "Do not go gentle into that good night"; then the positive command to him to assert his individuality, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light".
Numerous other devices contribute to the subtle variations within the pattern of the villanelle. Although the meter is generally iambic pentameter and the vocabulary contains seven times as many monosyllables as polysyllables, the speech stresses in a line vary from five (the "Rage, rage" line) to eight (the "Do not go gentle" line) and help save the poem from a monotonous, "singsong" rhythm. The full, resonant effect of the poem is intensified by the fact that the two rhyme-bases involve long vowels (e and ai). Especially in stanzas III and V, the rhymes are emphasized by a concentration of internal assonance of e and ai:
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. 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.
Both stanzas have at least four uses of each of the rhyme vowels, excluding the rhyme words themselves. The repetition of vowel sounds focuses attention upon the meaningful words of these stanzas; it helps to indicate an important theme underlying the poem—the discrepancy between what the good and grave men have done in life (frail deeds) and what they might have done (blazing, meteoric deeds).
Part of the powerfulness of the poem results from the intensity of striking power of the words used. One out of every eight syllables is of very high striking power (ten syllables have a striking power of 39, thirteen have a striking power of 40 to 44). Thus Thomas's language is exhortative in both sound and sense; the words rage as he desires his father to rage.
In the final stanza lies the core of the meaning of the poem. More quiet, calm, and tender than the preceding lines, this stanza directly addresses the poet's father on his precipice of death—i.e., "on the sad height". Then in the second line Thomas urges his father to:
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
This line of ten monosyllables is strong, deliberate, and slow in tempo. Closely juxtaposed repetitions of the same sound usually produce an effect of retarding the rhythm. Such is the case here, where the s sound, introduced by the word "sad" in the first line of the stanza, is repeated. The three most important words end in the sound 5—"curse", "bless", and "fierce"—and "tears" ends in the closely related z sound. Thomas's use of punctuation also retards the rhythm, in particular the non-grammatical use in "curse, bless, me now". Indeed, the oxymoron effect of "curse, bless" reflects the dichotomy and poignancy of Thomas's plea to his father. The poet prays that his father will, with fierce tears, curse and bless him—as his final and ultimate protest against death.
Source: Louise Baughn Murdy, Sound and Sense in Dylan Thomas's Poetry, Mouton & Co., 1966, pp. 96-7.
Dylan Thomas' definition of poetry as a record of the "individual struggle from darkness towards some measure of light" suggests an interest that can be traced through at least three thematic levels of his work. The conditions of light and dark represent particular aspects of experimental faith. In the first dramatic phase of his existence, Thomas inhabits a primitive world whose realms are simply day and night:
A weather in the quarter of the veins Turns night to day; blood in their suns Lights up the living worm.
Vitiated by the seasons' cycle and, on a lesser scale, by the rhythmic tides of sun and moon, he dwells alternately in the light and dark:
A darkness in the weather of the eye Is half its light; the fathomed sea Breaks on unangled land.
The initial senory perception—either of man in the womb or of man in a cultural dawn—indicates an effort towards understanding the forces which conflicting powers exert upon the poet's being. In the role of myth's philosopher, Thomas attempts to comprehend the mystery of life's reality in order that his world might be made more acceptable. He is incapable of creating an escape from reality, for, on this level, the real world is his only sphere. What he requires is that an intelligible conciliation be made between the threatening dark and the benefic light. Attending a first confused idea of reality, Thomas is able to postulate that "A process blows the moon into the sun," without defining what that "process" is. He expresses the myth of light in terms of the rhythms that his eye perceives. In a general way, light and dark are symbols of man's life and death, and the poet sees in them evidence of a spiritual concern. Man's primordial need is for that first degree of trust which intuition bestows upon his mind.
But as his mental capacities increase, man begins to live imaginatively. Desiring to penetrate deeper into life's mysteries, or to transcend its commonplace realities, he envisages a superior realm. On this intermediate cognitive plane, the "process" of the blown moon is described as "the man in the wind and the west moon." Acquainted with reality and blessed with the ability to create new images, he attempts to express what he knows (in sensory manner of knowing) in terms of what he hopes to realize. From the essence of the sensible dark he abstracts an idea of the darkness of a yonder place, interpreting it as a spatial and temporal dimension that can be physically traversed. Man, motivated by the dream of vision and the restless passion of desire, is promoted to a heroic role. Thus it is that he prepares to:
Sail on the level, the departing adventure. To the sea-blown arrival—a passage that will carry him From the kangaroo foot of the earth, From the chill, silent centre to the spaces of a world beyond the world.
Employing Thomas' terms, the hero's adventure is essentially an attempt to journey across a "fathomed [i.e., a known] sea" to an "unangled [i.e., an unmeasured] land." It is the striving to bring that which is unknown into measurable being. Darkness, the ever-threatening shadow of death, is synonymous with inferior knowledge. Thus, in Vision and Prayer, Thomas tells of:
the interpreted evening And the known dark of the earth...
Light, by contrast, is symbolic of the hero's effort towards an illumination of the image of a supernatural sphere and its divinity:
I dreamed my genesis in sweat of death, fallen Twice in the feeding sea, grown Stale of Adam's brine until, vision Of new man strength, I seek the sun.
Movement in the direction of light represents the beginning of faith:
"For men were in the darkness of ignorance: God indeed destroyed this darkness, sending light into the world that men might recognize the truth"... Not to believe is to be in darkness; not to be in the light is to be unborn.
The final development, then, is found in Thomas' use of revelation as a means of translating fundamental knowledge, or, more properly, of defining the eternal light made manifest in temporal experience. Hence, the symbol of the Savior is a bewildering, life-penerating light whose nearest image is "the sudden / Sun." In attempting to express the nature of this light, St. Augustine says: "What is that, which so brightly shoots through me, and strikes my heart without hurting it? And I shudder, and I catch fire; I shudder inasmuch as I am unlike it, I catch fire inasmuch as I am like unto it." Experimentally, and in a similar mystic mode, Thomas narrates the experience that can neither be adequately returned nor clearly communicated outside itself:
O let him Scald me and drown Me in his world's wound His lightning answers my Cry. My voice burns in his hand. Now I am lost in the blinding One.
The soul, first in Thomas' words and then in Augustine's, is "taken by light" and "made by it." Man rejoices in the light but suffers in the knowledge of his material being. We describe the light as love because it is the gift of the participating experience that results from faith's experiment. Thomas is guided to his vision by God's answer to his cry—"the message which we have heard from him ... that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" (I John: 3,5). The evolutionary manifestation of God, the progressive revelation of life, is defined by this poet as man's growth in Him.
Source: Charles I. Knauber "Imagery of Light in Dylan Thomas" in Renasence, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring, 1954 pp. 95-96, 116.