Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night Analysis

  • Thomas figures death as "night" and life as "light" to explore themes surrounding aging and dying. He implores his dying father to "rage" against the dying of the light and to reclaim some of the energy of youth.
  • Describing the night as "good" 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.
  • The speaker addresses the last stanza of the poem directly to his dying father, but his demand that people resist death seems to be a more universal entreaty.

Analysis

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Last Updated on February 15, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 370

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.

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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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

Dylan Thomas wrote in such a fiercely personal style about such narrowly personal themes that there is hardly any relationship at all to be found between his poetry and the times in which he lived. Critic Jacob Korg noted in a 1965 study of Thomas's work that "he was occupied with introspections that lie outside of time and place ... his style owes comparatively little to tradition or example." Thomas grew up in a middle-class family, in a seaside town in the south of Wales; his father was the senior English master in the local grammar school; he lived in London during the Second World War; he was a chronic alcoholic, who stole from his friends and lied to them, was loud and offensive in public, and died of poisoning from drinking too much too fast one day. These facts of his life are well known and often repeated, but they can only be found in his poetry—if one looks for them—with a loose imagination.

Welsh Tradition
Like the traditional poetry of Wales, Thomas's work displays two tendencies that might seem to the casual reader to contradict each other: an intuitive, mystical religious sense and a strong controlling hand. Wales, along England's western border, has a traditional poetic form known as the eisteddfod, which was used by druidic cults and in religious worship of nature. It has a strong structure and, like any prose written primarily for recitation and not reading, has a strong, elaborate meter. These facets are not directly noticeable in Thomas's work, but a reader can find in his work a deep strain of very personal religious beliefs, often attributing mystic powers to natural objects; also, Thomas frequently wrote in regular rhythm and meter and often employed recognized forms, as evinced by the use of the villanelle in "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night."

World War II
In the years immediately following Great Britain's entry into the World War in 1939, Germany bombed strategic points of England, particularly London, on a regular basis. Wales was under constant watch from a naval invasion from Germany or its allies. During those years, Thomas lived in several places around Wales, mostly settling around the quiet fishing village of Laughame, and in 1941, when he landed a job writing scripts and reciting poetry on the British Broadcasting Company's Program 3, he and his wife moved to London. When the United States entered the war in 1941, German resources were diverted somewhat, but infrequent air raids continued until the end of the war in 1945. Living through the dangers of war helped define the sensibilities of a whole generation of poets, who recognized the wastefulness of mass destruction and saw the shame of demolishing sites across Europe that had stood for centuries. Still other British poets acknowledged how the war reduced the United Kingdom to a second-class power, and the pity and frustration is reflected in their poetry. It only very rarely shows itself in Thomas's work.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392

Dylan Thomas, partly because of his legendary status as a hard-drinking, wild-living Welshman, is often considered to be a primitive poet, one for whom poems somehow appeared on the page, almost miraculously springing up fully developed out of his passionate nature. In actuality, the contrary is true. Thomas's poetry is very carefully crafted, and he often uses complicated structures.

"Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" is an intricately structured villanelle, made up of five tercets, a unit of three lines of verse, followed by a quatrain, a unit of four lines of verse. The opening line of the poem, the first line in the first stanza, also ends the second and fourth tercets. The third and final line of the first tercet serves as the last line in the third and fifth stanzas. They will also become the last two lines of the quatrain.

The entire rhyme scheme of the poem is built around the words that end the first two lines, "night" and "day." The first and third lines in every stanza rhyme with "night," while every second line rhymes with "day." These words serve as more than just a simple rhyme however; they provide the contrasting images that serve as the poem's core. Thomas also uses internal rhyme to make his poetry flow smoothly, giving it a melodic quality. The poet's use of alliteration, with its repeated initial sounds, can be seen in the words "go" and "good" in the first line, and "blind" and "blaze" in line 14. The words "caught" and "sang" in line 10 illustrate assonance, or the repetition of similarly located vowel sounds. In line 17, the words "curse" and "bless" are examples of half-rhyme, another convention Thomas frequently employs.

The meter in the poem is described by some critics as basically iambic pentameter, a line of verse featuring segments of two syllables where the first syllables is unstressed and the second is stressed, as in the word "above." Pentameter means that there are five such segments in each line—"penta" meaning "five." But Thomas's poetry seldom fits neatly into conventional metric analysis. Therefore many critics choose to view his poetry in terms of the number of syllables in each lines, rather than by metric feet. Thus "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" may also be described as decasyllabic, having ten syllables in a line.

Compare and Contrast

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1946: The postwar demand for consumer goods gave workers the edge in bargaining for wages: 4.6 million workers held strikes against the manufacturers they worked for, including Westinghouse, General Motors, the meat packers, and the railroads.

1981: 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike and were fired by President Ronald Reagan, marking the start of a new era of pro-employer "union-busting."

Today: Labor unions have the lowest membership since the 1940s and, in many cases, have little effect on wages and benefits being offered.

1947: The first casino was built in Las Vegas, Nevada—the only state to allow legalized gambling.

1978: Atlantic City, New Jersey, legalized casino gambling in order to bring in tax revenues.

Today: Most states have some form of legalized casino gambling.

Media Adaptations

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

"Return Journey to Swansea," and audio cassette read by Thomas, is available from Harper Collins Audio.

Dylan Thomas: A Portrait, is a video cassette from Films for the Humanities and Sciences.

A video cassette narrated by Thomas titled A Dylan Thomas Memoir was released by Pyramid Film and Video in 1972.

Dylan Thomas: Return Journey was released on video cassette by Direct Cinema Limited in 1991.

Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood is available on video cassette from Films for the Humanities and Sciences.

The Wales of Dylan Thomas is available on video cassette from Films for the Humanities and Sciences.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Gaston, Georg, Critical Essays on Dylan Thomas, Boston: G.K. Hall, 1989.

Kidder, Rushworth M., in his Dylan Thomas: The Country of the Spirit, Princeton University Press, 1973, p. 234.

Korg, Jacob, Dylan Thomas, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1965.

Thomas, Dylan, Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters, edited by Paul Ferris, New York: Macmillan, 1985.

Thomas, Dylan, Dylan Thomas: The Poems, edited by Daniel Jones, editor, London: J.M. Dent, 1971.

For Further Study
Cox, C.B., editor, Dylan Thomas: A Collection of Essays, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1966.
Contains several critical essays written while Thomas was still alive or soon after his death, including poet Karl Shapiro's reflections on Thomas's place in our culture from a perspective of a peer who knew him. Also particularly significant is John Ackerman's "The Welsh Background," which highlights some thin social strains that can be found in Thomas's work.

Moynihan, William, The Craft and Art of Dylan Thomas, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.
A very detailed analysis focused closely on Thomas's writing in the order that it was published and the theoretical basis behind each work.

Tindall, William York, A Reader's Guide to Dylan Thomas, New York: Octagon Books, 1962.
Considered by critics to be a key study of Thomas, redefining the poet's reputation by giving serious consideration to his technical ability and the tremendous effort Thomas put into making his poems sound spontaneous.

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