Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night Analysis

Dylan Thomas

Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night Analysis

  • Dylan Thomas uses the metaphor of death as "night" and life as "light" to explore the themes of aging and dying. He implores his dying father to "rage" against the dying of the light and to reclaim some of the fire or energy of youth.
  • The use of the word "good" to describe the night suggests that death is inevitable and may in some cases be a relief, particularly from pain and illness. Knowing that death is coming isn't the same thing as accepting it, however. Wise men fight death as much as wild men.
  • The speaker addresses the last stanza of the poem to his dying father. It's possible that the entire poem is addressed to his father, but this isn't clear. The speaker's use of commands ("do not go gentle into that good night") suggests a universal audience.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

Dylan Thomas wrote in such a fiercely personal style about such narrowly personal themes that there is hardly any relationship at all to be...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 is, a word associated with death (“night”), but termed “good” in order to overcome its negative connotations. The line also uses the adjective “gentle” instead of the adverb “gently,” as would be customary. As a result, one finds the poet describing the man rather than the manner in which he must move, providing a tighter relationship to the poem as a whole.

The phrase “old age” may be thought of as personification, but it may also be interpreted as a metonymy (substitution) for his father. “Burn and rave” are intense expressions of the defiant stand the poet advocates against “the close of day,” here a metaphor for death, as is “dying of the light” in the next line. “Dark is right” in the second stanza represents a terse acknowledgment of the intellectual recognition of death’s inevitability, but the awareness that his father’s words had “forked no lightning” is a rich metaphor for failure to influence the powerful but brilliant forces within society.

In the next stanza, the poet turns to imagery of the sea: The “frail deeds” dancing in a green bay present numerous levels of interpretation. On the level of the imagery itself, one glimpses a happy dance taking place in a surrealistic body of green water. On another level, the green bay seems to be a metaphorical representation of life itself, green frequently representing the vital and fertile elements of human existence. That frail deeds have failed to enter into the vital life stream seems to be the poet’s judgment that his father, although a good man, had never experienced fully the joys that human life offers.

In the next tercet, singing “the sun in flight” returns one to metonymy, where Thomas conceives his father as recognizing the creative genius capable of some glorious poetic vision but stifling it, “grieving it.” Such wild men must acknowledge the need to defy death. “Blind eyes” blazing “like meteors” in the fifth stanza introduces the first simile of the poem and maintains the celestial vision of the tercet before it.

In the concluding quatrain, the reader comes at last to the apostrophe directly addressing the poet’s absent father, which confirms that he is the individual toward whom the poem is directed. The ambiguity of the poet’s feelings toward his father is emphasized by the paradoxical second line of the stanza, “Curse, bless, me now,” as well as by the “sad height” from which his father can view the poet. The height is metaphorical, implying the closeness to death and to vision of the elderly man; the sadness in the lines derives from his father’s personal failure to fulfill his own high goals.

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

Dylan Thomas, partly because of his legendary status as a hard-drinking, wild-living Welshman, is often considered to be a primitive poet,...

(The entire section is 392 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1946: The postwar demand for consumer goods gave workers the edge in bargaining for wages: 4.6 million workers held strikes against...

(The entire section is 120 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Is there another group, beside the old and dying, that you think should "rage"? Write a poem to stir up their emotions.


(The entire section is 94 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

An audio cassette read by Thomas and others called "In Country Heaven—Evolution" is available from Harper Collins Audio.


(The entire section is 117 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

The best of Thomas's poetic works can be found in his Collected Poems, published in 1971.

Portrait of the Artist as a...

(The entire section is 134 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Emery, Clark, The World of Dylan Thomas, Coral Gables: University of Miami, 1962.

Gaston, Georg,...

(The entire section is 237 words.)